by Bruce Bindner
Magic Mushroom, El Capitan (IV, 5.9, A2)
The Team: Eric "Loose Cannon" Coomer
Amanda "Tarr-baby" Tarr
Bruce "Brutus of Wyde" Bindner
For a week this June, climbers on Shield and Salathe' Wall
routes on El Capitan were an unwilling captive audience to an epic interpersonal
flame-out, as three bumblies stumbled up the adjacent Magic Mushroom.
The normal belay signals went something like this:
"You're such a f*cking LOSER! Why don't you take an AID CLIMBING COURSE!!!???"
"If we ever get off this thing, I never want to SEE you again, let
alone climb with you!!!"
"F*ck you, AND the f*cking haul bag you f*cking rode in on!!!"
"Yeah, I'm an *sshole. SO EAT ME!!!!"
[turning a page in a book] "F*ck off. Can't you see I'm BUSY!!!???"
Yes, it was true. "Team Belligerent" was in the Valley, and they
were having themselves an unmitigated blast. Goddess help us all.
Brutus begins the story:
Friday, June 7, 1996: El Capitan meadows basked under clear skies as Eric
Coomer and I unloaded ropes, racks, and assorted junk for our first of many
hikes up to the Captain. After swilling the last of the coffee, we began
the short walk to the base. I kept my eyes averted, focused on the trail
directly ahead. The wall was too big for me to look at, this time. I could
not embrace the whole of our overwhelming project with my vision, had to
concentrate on the next few steps in front of me. Even so, it was with a
feeling of creeping far out on a limb that I completed the walk.
The first pitch was my lead: a huge loose block which rocked wildly at a
feather's touch, perched directly over the staging area of Salathe' Wall.
people-staging-for-Salathe'-Wall DO NOT TOUCH. WARNING. SYSTEM OVERLOAD.
THIS APPLICATION HAS VIOLATED SYSTEM INTEGRITY." flashed in red neon
flames through my consciousness. Sick and shaking from adrenal nausea I
eventually reached the belay, pants sopping and stinking of urine. Not an
"Hurt me! Hurt me! Make me CRY! I Love it when you make me cry!!"
We were surprised (and I pleased) to find awkward squeeze chimneys and flared
slots throughout the climb. The second pitch included a strip tease act
by the leader to negotiate a narrow squeeze chasm capped by a roof. Above,
our topo showed 5.10a crack.
"Uhhh, excuuuse me, but our topo SUCKS."
Eric powered through his appointed two leads for the day with his usual
grace and efficiency, belying the difficulty of the thin, blown-out flared
cracks, and the endless gardening. "Dr. Horticulture" styled his
way up the wall on copperheads, sawed-off and tied-off pins as the afternoon
drew to a close.
Four pitches fixed. Evening shadows darkened the emerald meadows and deepened
the sapphire stream. Already filthy, hot and exhausted, we appreciated the
freezing dip in the Merced River at El Capitan Meadows, and icy brews, all
of which became an evening ritual until blast-off.
We cruised the Valley, looking for Amanda Tarr, our third, who was working
her way up Skull Queen on Washington Column: a creature of the Walls;
a tough, fun and energetic little powerhouse we desperately needed on our
team for this project.
Saturday, June 8
Wild pendulum into a huge dihedral. More sweaty strain found us disheartened
and behind schedule with only 8 pitches fixed by Saturday evening. Dip.
Drink. Look for Amanda.
Sunday, June 9
Mammoth Terraces finally. The first third of the wall had taken us most
of three days. Supposedly a warm-up for the upper section, we found an incredibly
beautiful wall with difficult aid throughout the seldom-done first 11 pitches.
Some of the wildest pendulum pitches we'd ever encountered were found here:
Eric ran madly across a blank wall to jam an alien into a crack at his fingertips
out at the very apex of his swing, then hung there crucified....
"Slack!!!" he squeaked.....
Rappel our fixed lines. We're finally in a position to launch ourselves
up the upper wall. Dip. Drink. Finally we found Amanda. Monday was staging
day, final shopping and nervous rituals. Did we really want to do this?
Tuesday June 11
It's 1:30 AM. Finally established with all of our gear on Mammoth Terraces,
we chomp on broiled beast wrapped in lettuce leaves in the dark, drink some
precious water, and drop into a deep, exhausted sleep. Hauling up the Salathe'
highway to Heart deserves mention: Although I remembered this section as
a smooth easy haul, several minor roofs impaired our smooth operation. Our
"caterpillar" plan was for each person to haul a bag, with the
last person jugging up as soon as the last bag was off the anchor. Probably
a good plan in theory, but in fact, Howdy II had gotten stuck several
times enroute to Heart, and eventually I had to rappel down to free the
d*mn thing, while, above, Eric and Amanda waited and wondered what was taking
me so long.
5:30 Tuesday Morning.
Amanda and Eric grumbled at my early rise as I noisily clanked and jangled
knick-knacks. After much pleading, I finally talked someone into belaying
me up the 5.8 pitch (One of the few free pitches on the route.) Since it
was my lead, I tried to get us started early. Ended the pitch at a belay
on tied-off pins. Time for a bolt. Our goal for the day was Grey Ledges,
which we reached in early afternoon after several wonderful awkward flared
corners. Above Grey Ledges "Loose Cannon" Coomer pushed one more
pitch into the evening hours, a pendulum followed by terrifying unprotected
It had been a good day. We were stylin'. Eric stood in aiders, a huge cigar
clamped between his teeth, violently drilling a 3/8" inch bolt hole
three inches into the rock to re-enforce the ancient 1/4" anchor, as
the daylight faded and the evening stars swept the sunset from the sky.
We settled down to a wall dinner and happily nodded off with the tunes on
the boombox still rocking the bivy. Far off across the southwest face, climbers
on Salathe' Wall could hear us wishing one another a good night:
"Hurry up with the g*d d*mn bolt, sh*t-for-brains!!!"
Wednesday June 12
Amanda's ledge, A Gramicci "Hourglass" collapsed during the night.
Amanda continues the story:
I awoke at some indeterminant hour, to the sound of metal grating on rock.
A split second thereafter, I found myself in a twisted mess of nylon and
aluminum, sleeping bag and daisy chain.
It took some time to relevel my bed, and I recall Eric mumbling "Oh
no..." I thought it was uttered in sympathy, as he too has owned one
of the Gramicci wonders, when in actuality it was uttered out of fear that
I would request to join them up on the flat Fish terrace.
Morning came, and after a few moments of delirium, I clenched my fists to
rid my fingers of the stiffness which had become as much of a morning tradition
as No-Doz. It was something around my 13th day without a full respite from
wall climbing; I had either been climbing, approaching, or descending since
the first day on Zodiac with Tuan and Ken.
"You're such a b*tch."
"Hey, I didn't _try_ and get this pitch, Eric. That's just the way
it worked out."
I looked up at the beautiful golden wall, our first excursion into the upper
reaches of El Cap where the climbing gets steep, clean, and aesthetic.
The pitch was spectacular. I'd done a fair amount of nailing prior to the
Magic Mushroom, but never had I encountered such amazingly clean
feeling climbing. As would be the predominant theme for the remainder of
the route, the pitch went with mostly tied off LA's, cam hooks, a few RP's,
and many two-cam aliens.
Brutus jugged up one of the haul lines, in order to get a jump on the next
pitch while I hauled and Eric cleaned. The Grigri got him on belay, and
we all started our assigned tasks.
An unclear topo brought Brutus to a mid-belay, so Eric had a short and awkward
pitch to the real stopping point. My next pitch, the Red Bullet pitch had
me complaining up a storm. I'd already gotten stuck with the 5.10 ow on
Skull Queen, and there I was committed to another wide crack, yet
this time I had to do it in my tennis shoes. While it really wasn't that
difficult, I managed a great deal of whining, an amazing utterance of expletives,
and a good amount of proclamations on how Brutus was the designated free
climber, and a wide crack expert to boot.
Evening was rapidly approaching, but Eric was bound and determined to get
on his pitch, the first A3+ we were to encounter. As the golden-red line
which marks the border between day and dusk left the summit of Middle Cathedral
Rock, he began preparations.
[alright, that's the extent of my literary abilities...Coomer? Your turn!]
Eric takes the lead:
What the hell was I thinking? Tunnel vision is generally a good quality
on walls, but I had taken it to extremes. I felt that we moved too slow
this second day above mammoth and I was determined to make up some time.
When I reached Amanda at the bivy spot, the amount of motivation was high.
Only a few minutes later, I would already be running on empty. The pitch
was rated a stout A3+ but started off pretty easy. After pulling over the
small overhang I was greeted by technical climbing illuminated by my feeble,
At one point, I made assurances that Amanda was not in direct line of my
impending fall which would surely send me back below the anchors. Just before
flight time, I was fortunate enough to have my sickly yellow beam flicker
over a better placement- salvation was at hand. A few more thin dicey moves
had me in the bowels of the next flaring slot on the route.
I decided to head back to the bivy and rest for the tackle in the morning.
Our nightly yell fest was soon replaced with deep sleep as the morning once
again raced towards us. Back in the saddle, I tackled the foaming slot
above. Another bolt sunk into the flesh of the Big Stone had Brutus on belay
for the next lead. More awkward, yet somehow fun, climbing continued upwards.
The rest of the day lumbered along feeling as tired as we all were.
Another stunning lead for Amanda brought here to the logical stopping point
for the day. We were still battling the major clusters of multiple haul
lines, tangles and endless knots at the belays. Upon reaching the bivy,
I decided not to repeat the performance I gave the previous night opting
for an early sleep.
Morning again, the same old life, eat, drink, pee, climb, sleep ad nauseam.
Life on the wall is simple life. I finally had my shot at something approaching
aesthetic bliss as I launched into the first lead of the day. Thin heads
lead to a perfect lost arrow crack singular in size for entire pitch. It
*was* bliss as I reached the anchors, primordial screams signalled my arrival.
More importantly, a small stance awaited me with breathless lust. Cold,
content, and still half asleep, I watched Brutus attack the next lead.
The best part of this climb was the company. Soon Amanda had reached my
stance and we passed the time making fun of Brutus, of each other, of the
world at large. This was not a team for someone with a poor self esteem
to join. We were ruthless and brutal.
My tiny, ecstatic ledge was no match for what awaited me at the top of the
next pitch. As I pulled over the final lip, I saw Brutus knowingly smiling,
smug with the satisfaction that his ledge was infinitely bigger than mine.
I slumped and curled myself into a compact ball and proceeded to sleep.
As Amanda and Brutus continued with the lead at hand, I continued to catch
up on my lost slumber. Darkness was now rapidly approaching. I figured
that it would end as most nights on this wall did, cleaning in the dark.
Except for my one half pitch, all of the climbing was done with natural
light, the cleaning on the other hand always proved epic. The wind began
to gain life again as I huddled in the darkness waiting for the signals.
The pitch was almost completely horizontal. Bags hung, ropes tangled, sleep
deprived. The two successive pendulums proved to be a bit of a bother in
the night as I finally pulled myself on to the waiting ledge. All that
stood between us and Chickenhead ledge was one A4 pitch, much needed sleep,
The argument on who was to lead the next pitch had finally been settled.
I resigned myself to the fate of what was to come as I placed my first head.
Unfortunately, the pitch turned out to be rather straight forward, easy
almost, and only A2. An incredible amount of worry wasted on this pitch
was for nothing. The huge expanse of Chickenhead was finally ours. The
top was near.
Brutus picks up the thread:
As we slowly crept up the wall, I became entranced with the diversity of
life. The tilted forest and meadows in the hazy distance below, the constant
dances of the swallows, the chirps of the bats at night, the tiny bugs...
I spent most of a day (or so it seemed) admiring the brilliant hues of a
red speck of bug. An inquiry from Amanda, below, jarred me out of my reverie:
"Are you ready for the Sex??"
"uhhhh.... [perking up] What???"
"I *SAID*, are you READY TO HAUL THE SACKS!!!???"
"Oh. uhh... READY TO HAUL!!!"
And back to the vertical grind I would go, hauling to the sound of expletives
muttered from below. :)
I arrived to find Amanda already blasting up the next pitch, belayed by
Eric. A Shield team strolled onto the ledge shortly thereafter, smirking
at our vocalizations. We smirked in return, because (1) we were in actuality
having a great time, (2) we were there first, meaning that we would be camped
on the summit that evening, drinking gin and tonic, whereas they were in
for another night hanging on the wall, and (3) our supply of Ibuprofen was
still ample, and would last us well beyond the summit. Puzzled expressions
followed us as maniacal laughter from Eric's lead echoed across the Valley.
Above Chickenhead, the route eased in difficulty, and the pitches sped by
in a blur. Unfortunately, so did the day. In mid-afternoon, I found myself
below the last pitch. Our topo summed this pitch up perfectly: "Sucks
A 30-foot roof makes this A1 pitch highly interesting. It is apparent that
most leaders protect the entire roof, and turn the lip to find themselves
midpitch in a runout 5.6 chimney, immobilized by rope drag and forced to
belay. Rather than face this fate, and manky anchors at the end of the roof,
I backclean the entire beast. Above is the 5.6 slot, come to Papa, Brutus
is Home! Knee-jumarring up this awkward chimney is truly a wonderful, fitting
finish to this wall-of-slots. In fading light, I clip three huge bolts,
with only 4th class climbing above, and begin the task of hauling yet again.
Our work is not done, far from it in fact, but at long last, and forever,
the wall is ours.
After the numb fingers and itching, swollen hands have healed, after my
vision quits blurring from corneal damage (sunburn and scratches from granite
particles) after I've lost the weight I am now gaining as I stuff everything
in sight into my gaping maw, I know there are some lasting impressions that
- For days, Eric and I had been climbing on the route. I'd literally
lost count. Amanda had joined us some time ago, as the pitches blurred into
a constant routine. The technical ratings no longer had any meaning. My
lead, your lead, haul when ready had no meaning. There on the wall, pitch
after pitch, were the most beautiful vivid red flowers, members of the stonecrop
family. Succulents growing and thriving in an unbelievable garden in the
cracks of this vertical desert. We were so very lucky to do this wall when
these wonderful, tiny, delicate, incredibly rugged living things were in
- Somewhere on the headwall, I was leading up a strenuous, awkward
seam in the back of a flared slot. We had been following this overhanging
weakness for uncounted pitches, when the crack in the back opened up to
3 1/2 inches wide for the length of eight inches. There in the back of
the crack, was the nest of a violet-green swallow, her tiny eggs clustered
together amid grasses carefully coiled. She retreated to the back of the
crack in fright at my passage (and my placement of a #3.5 friend in her
doorway) but by the time we cleaned the pitch she was back on her eggs,
keeping them warm and alive. The sight of her brought me such joy, that
even after I took a fall on said friend, I still carefully checked on the
well-being of the nesting mother before moving on.
- The constant smell of fear.
- Staring up from the portaledge into the moonless night sky, seeing
the Milky Way with more clarity than I can remember since childhood.
- Looking in wonder at my shattered hands, watching the fingers move,
the mechanisms of life at work as I cleaned a pitch high on the route.
- The expressions of joy in the faces of my good friends as we woke
to a new day, knowing the wall at last was behind us, and knowing that we
had just done something terribly important, no matter how meaningless it
would appear to the rest of the world. Time now to dance, to drink. Time
now to live.
Truly a magical route.
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Modern 3/8" bolts were placed at some of the belay stations on the
upper pitches where the ancient belay anchors from the original ascent were
found to be unsafe. No bolts were added on any leads on this route.