A Cosmic Descent
Pain and Salvation in the North Dome Gully
by Dingus Milktoast aka Craig Harris
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North Dome Gully, Yosemite, California
It's five o'clock. The sun sets a little after six. We're still 2 pitches
and some 4th class from the summit. We've got well over 100 pounds of climbing
and bivi gear to deal with. I feel like shit after being on the wall for
more than 2 days and nights. My next lead is a steep 5.9 crack that intimidates
me to no end. To top it all off the haul bag is stuck and my partner adamantly
refuses to haul, much less offer any solutions as to how to make things
I down jumar about 80 feet and free the stuck line. He shouts there is still
too much rope drag. Muttering french oaths I jug back up the line. Turns
out he was trying to leg haul the damn thing. At this point I'm beyond quiet
suggestions or gently admonitions. It's either bite his head off or do it
myself. I do it myself. This guy is a friend of mine and I won't let any
big wall bullshit come between us. He's been under the same strain I have.
His sentences have become as short as mine. Yet we haven't come to words
and neither is willing to cross that creek. The bag responds to body hauls.
"I don't know how you expected to leg haul it." This is my only
comment. Seemingly innocent, looking at it here on paper. But I offer it
with a caustic tone and a refusal to even look at my partner as I do his
work for him. So when the damn haul bag gets stuck again I tell him it's
his turn to go free it. Finally, we're gathered on the ledge.
"So what do you think Dingus?" What do I think? Think? I think
the world is full of shit. I think I hurt real bad. I'm scared to death
of this next pitch. I want off this wall so bad I can taste it. I can't
stand the thought of another night on this cliff. I'm sure the bag is gonna
get stuck a bunch more times. Carrying the haul bag up the 4th class stuff
at the top is gonna be like death. We're not going to get up by dark. Ahead
of us is a long, serious descent in the dark. A descent notorious for it's
victims. I'm worried, tired and I want to go home. I think I regret the
day I ever talked myself into wall climbing. I hate life. I hate this wall.
I especially hate myself.
Needless to say, I keep all of these comments to myself. I do voice some
doubts about having enough time to get up by dark. My partner recognizes
these reservations for what they are.
"Dingus, how hard can 5.9 be?" How hard? Are you kidding, how
hard? No. He knows how hard. He's just trying to cheer me up, bolster my
confidence. I don't want to face this thing. But I don't want to spend another
night out either. It's time for me to see my family and that gives me the
push I've been needing. I start throwing together a free climbing rack.
Damn these things are light! I thrash my way up the thing, pulling on gear,
standing in slings, cursing, flopping and making a mockery of free climbing
technique. But I do get up in less than twenty minutes; a record for this
My partner's next lead is only fifty feet. While he finishes the haul I
scramble to the top to fix a line and scope how we'll get the bag up there.
It's not bad and I decide we can do everything in one pass, with a jumar
self-belay. I stand on the summit watching the sun go down. The afternoon
rain clouds have vanished as if they were never here. Funny. I've been on
this very summit before, in much the same condition, facing the same descent,
watching the sun go down then as now. Somehow the feeling I've seen all
this before is not comforting. I have not forgotten.
We finally flop over the last boulder and drop our loads on the flat ground.
Hey! Flat ground. What a concept. We proceed to cover it all with our gear.
Rack, ropes; all sorts of stuff dropped where ever it happens to land once
it leaves our tired hands. I feel sick to my stomach. This last day has
been a hard push and I haven't eaten right. I'm already running on empty.
The low gas light has been on for hours. I'm about as tired as a man can
get. It's funny. We read about the exaltation, about the noble thoughts
and insightful wisdom of those who top out on big walls. Me? All I feel
is negative. I just want off this wall and out of this valley.
I say we need to jump on the descent immediately; get it over with. My partner
wisely suggests we eat something and brew up some coffee. I know what he
says is right. But this gnawing doubt is making my stomach knot up badly.
The thought of food actually revolts me. How are we ever gonna get down
this thing tonight?
We look down into the valley, seemingly miles away. Lights are coming on
in the twilight. Damn but I'm jealous of those innocent, fat tourists cruising
the loop in their desperate quests for the next hot meal. It's a cloudless
night and we await a spectacular moonrise in just a few minutes. At least
we'll have some extra light. I start sorting gear right away. Wall mentality;
I can't let that pile of gear sit there untended, while I lounge and eat.
My partner feels the same way, so we finish the sort, repack the pig and
the old Dingus pack we dragged up the route. With that out of the way I
can finally relax my mind to the point of dealing with the niceties of eating
food and drinking coffee. Some of the wall is beginning to wear off.
"Check out the moon, Burl." Moonrise over Half Dome, an event
I'm ashamed to admit I have taken for `granite' in the past. It was a full
moon last night. It came up just right of the Visor; the brilliant light
haunting me half the night. Looks like a replay tonight. But something is
wrong and I haven't quite put my finger on it yet.
"It's a crescent moon. That's weird." Burl voices my unformed
thoughts. But as soon as he says them, I realize that he's wrong. It's not
a crescent. A crescent is always less than half. This moon has a crescent
shadow to be sure. But it's almost a full moon at the same time. I've barely
begun to digest that thought when Burl provides the answer.
"Oh, that's right. It's an eclipse!" That's it! It's a lunar eclipse!
Right over Half Dome! My first thought? You got it. `Well, there goes our
light.' Yes, I'm a wall climbing shit with no gratitude. But I am getting
better. We heat up the last of our chili, even though I doubt I can eat
very much. I hate puking. I reckon the coffee should help though.
Turns out I'm hungry after all. We eat it all and both work at scraping
the left-overs out of the bottom of the pot. The brew gets hot on the very
last of the propane. Some things just work out, huh? I still feel sick though.
Coffee in hand, we watch the eclipse. It's funny. You can actually see the
Earth's shadow advance across the face of the moon. What better theater
from which to observe than the summit of Washington Column? What better
stage than Half Dome just across the narrow canyon? I lean back and look
behind me; West towards El Cap.
Wow! I forgot about the comet! Hale-Bopp in all it's glory blazes a path
across the western sky! We absolutely revel in the discovery. The comet
we knew about. The eclipse, nothing. But whatever we knew, or thought we
knew, was forgotten during the travails of the climb. It's like we alone
have discovered these phenomena anew; they belong to us. We'll call them
Burl's Comet and a Dingus of the Moon.
"You know Burl, some of the world's great religions were formed after
events like this." We talk briefly about primitives and their understanding
of the heavens. I arrogantly pass judgment on those ancients who saw the
approach of god in every mundane sign in the sky. But are we really that
much more advanced? Will our facts be ridiculed at some distant point in
the future, much as I ridicule a flat world supported by elephants? Are
our tools for describing what we see any more adequate, any more descriptive,
any more penetrating of the truth, than theirs? And what of my trivial pursuits?
How does wall climbing fit into the grand scheme of things? Are my puny
adventures any more than self-indulgence? Is my ego so fragile that I have
to torture myself to feel better? Does the fact that I understand what an
eclipse is, what a comet is, make any difference in the long run?
Facing the descent we face, it's hard to give myself any credit at all.
I simply accept that fact that I have topped out on a big wall only to be
confronted with BOTH an eclipse AND a comet. No big deal, right? Happens
all the time. But in hindsight, I'd wager I'm now part of a very small,
very select group of humans that has done all three on the same evening.
In fact, Burl and I may be the only humans to have stood at this particular
confluence, ever! Now that's the stuff of religion. Maybe I should start
a new one? Nah! The truths I learned on this wall, on this climb, are not
the truths modern people want to know about anyway. My truths might fit
better in some Puritanical reality, where suffering and duty are rightly
acknowledged as the core of being.
I'm simply too physically and emotionally spent to really give a damn right
now. Oh, we both really do understand the significance of these events.
It's just the monumental weight of what we have left to do. It depresses
us. It prevents us from fully enjoying the moment. Or maybe that too if
fitting. Perhaps we can only appreciate these outward things after great
internal struggle. I don't know. But I'm sure we'll both find out soon enough.
Coffee done we finish packing. What a joke! I carry all the hardware, some
personal gear and the ropes. Burl has everything else. My pack outweighs
his by at least fifteen pounds, but after fifty, who counts anyway? I'm
not kidding. Besides, at least I have a suspension system on my pack. The
haul bag is packed full to the top of the collar. Looks like the stub of
a giant pencil laying there on the ground. No thanks. I'll take the extra
We assume our burdens like cast members of a comic opera where all movement
is exaggerated in a grotesque parody of life. I help Burl mount the haul
bag. I know that sounds funny, but that's exactly what happens. First, Burl
addresses the haul bag, prepares it, lets it know that he's about to pick
it up. The haul bag just sits there stoicly, surely envisioning the torture
and revenge it's about to inflict upon poor Burl. He then maneuvers the
beast into a suitable location for heavy lifting. He puts in a formal request
for my assistance. I'm only too happy to oblige. Finally, he drops down,
squirms into the shoulder straps and, g-r-o-a-n, stands up on shaky legs.
Ha! The thing towers over his head, dwarfs him with it's immensity. I can't
help but laugh.
Now it's my turn. The Dingus pack is not especially massive; perhaps 4000
cubic inches and an overflow collar. But in it are two complete Yosemite
crack climbing racks, runners, aid stuff, two 200 foot ropes and various
assorted pieces of junk, like two helmets, a camera, a small radio and my
sunglasses. The pack feels like neutronium; dense, heavy, radioactive and
ultimately deadly. I have to boost it up on a waist-high rock, no small
feat, then wiggle in and stand. The waist belt takes a load off my shoulders,
but I know that's a short lived illusion. I'm braced for pain. At least,
I tell myself I'm braced for pain. In reality, I'm not prepared at all.
I'm just not willing to sit here and dwell upon it all night for no good
reason. It won't be any easier in the morning.
We drink the very last of the water. Water. It's funny, living in California
means we should never take water for granted, yet that's exactly what 30
million Californians do every day. At the expense of several other western
states, I might add. Down in the Great Valley, during a groggy Monday morning
shower, I'm as bad as the next; guilty as charged. Up here? No one, I repeat,
no one up here takes water for granted. Wall climbers least of all. We were
slow on the wall; slow party ahead of us, slow because we're just slow.
This morning we were down to our last 3 liters of water. We faced a grim
day and an even grimmer descent.
Later in the day, as I cleaned one of Burl's leads, he looked down from
a comfortable ledge and said,
"Hey Dingus, wait till you see this belay. You're gonna love it!"
Yeah right, I think. The first sit-down ledge in 2 days and Burl has to
brag about it cause I won't get to sit there. But when I arrive, I'm immensely
surprised and pleased. My entire being; attitude, bearing, opinion and self-image
take a giant leap forward. Tied into the belay anchors next to Burl, glistening
in the early afternoon sun, shining like precious diamonds, is a gallon,
repeat, a gallon of clear, fresh, cold drinking water. I literally shout
"YEAH! Thank you, you slow bastards!" I bellow up the rock in
gratitude. Whatever offenses or slights, real or imagined, those guys have
committed the last 3 days, and I have no idea what sordid aid things they
may have perpetrated against the rock, they are forgiven. No, that's not
strong enough. They are to be automatically granted entrance into Valhalla,
in perpetuity, for this act of kindness, this grand gesture, this noble
deed. A friggin gallon of water, can you believe it??? Now you know how
it is we had enough water left to brew up on the summit. Now you know where
we could summon enough resolve to convince ourselves we could get down this
thing in the dark! A gallon of life-giving, knee-lubricating, poison-purging
water. We're outta here!
And so the descent begins. We have of course waited until the eclipse is
in full bloom, until it is as dark as it's going to get, before departing.
Anything less would be un-sporting. The comet has set, but I'll see it again
before this night is through. Just before we leave I deploy my one and only
secret weapon in the fight against black death on scary descents. I put
a fresh set of batteries in my headlamp and install the spare bulb; the
halogen bulb. This baby cuts the dark like some kind of starwars laser.
It also drains the batteries about three times faster than a normal bulb.
The race is on!
There are many classic descents in Yosemite. The trip down from Sentinel
Rock is long and arduous; much more demanding than it appears from Camp
IV. The East Ledges descent from El Cap is not nearly as bad as the alternatives.
The trek down from the Arrowhead Arete is one of my great pleasures in climbing,
one I never tire of repeating. The endless walk down from the YPB conjures
up images of a blind-folded rat walking on a treadmill, in search of moldy
There are three particular descents that warrant individual mention in the
climbing guides as being especially treacherous. Each of these descents
has scored numerous victims. Each has seen fatalities. During the course
of my Yosemite tenure, I have done them all numerous times. Michael's Ledge
is, or more accurately was, the loose and dangerous way down from the Lower
Brother. The Kat Walk is the best way off Middle Cathedral Rock. And of
course the way down from Washington Column takes the climber down one of
the most notorious, most feared and accident prone descents of them all;
the North Dome Gully.
Royal Arches climbers, many having just completed their first grade IV,
often use the gully too. The descent is tougher than the climb and certainly
more dangerous. Most of the serious Yosemite descents are protected by difficult
climbs. Possessing the requisite skills to do the routes often implies a
corresponding experience in dealing with descents. Not so with the gully.
Then there are the late and tired big wall climbers coming down from the
Column; burdened with heavy loads, perhaps in the dark and unfamiliar with
the gully as well. People like Burl and me.
Ironically, most of the troubles with the North Dome Gully have nothing
to do with the gully proper. The gully really isn't that bad. Rather, the
issue is finding it in the first place. Standing atop the Column, looking
across a small gulf of empty space, the ridge forming the rim of the gully
seems just a short distance away. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It's a long, long way from the Column to the Gully.
Many injuries and even some deaths have resulted from parties convincing
themselves they have traversed too far and need to descend directly into
the gully, hidden from sight, somewhere below. They end up on the Death
Slabs, named as such by previous parties making the same mistake. They find
themselves committed to rappelling steeper and steeper slabs, getting deeper
and deeper in trouble. The smart ones realize the error, bite the bullet
and climb back to the rim. They correct their error the right way, the hard
way. And they live to tell about it.
The foolish ones press on, convincing themselves it will be easier to continue
than to retrace their steps. The lucky and the competent eventually find
their way to the bottom of the slabs, intact but many hours behind where
they would have been otherwise. The foolish and the naÔve get rescued,
hurt or die.
I've been this way at least 3 times before; once in the dark. I know all
about the danger of descending too soon. I know that the gully itself is
impossible to miss, if only we press on and never lose confidence in our
ability to find it. I mean, this gully descends all the way from the East
Face of North Dome, a thousand feet above our tired heads, to the Valley
floor. That's got to be near three thousand feet high. It drains a major
portion of the canyon side. It's a water shed, for crying out loud! It's
not a small ditch nor does it start out as a gentle slope. We can't possibly
miss it unless we turn away too soon.
I once came from the summit of North Dome to the valley floor, all the way
down the gully. This is by far the single most difficult descent I've done
in Yosemite. So whipped was I by the gully that day I blacked out from heat
exhaustion when I got back to the car. Most of that damage was inflicted
by a lack of water and the upper portions of the gully. Thankfully, we do
not have to repeat that performance tonight.
The biggest problem in getting to the gully is the trail; or trails, to
be more accurate. Ideally speaking, there would be a well marked trail from
the summit of the Column to the gully itself, with regularly spaced cairns
marking the way. In reality, one trail soon turns into many, as hundreds
of climbers have gone their separate ways, each convinced that their path
is the surest way to the valley floor. The resulting maze of crisscrossing
paths simply insures that no single trail will ever dominate, will ever
reign supreme. Following fresh footprints is no guarantee of success. Who
knows what kind of drugs those people were on!
There are several things I remember about the descent; foggy recollections,
landmarks and trees, that I constantly search for to validate the path finding
decisions I'm about to make. For the most part, Burl intends to leave these
decisions to me. He's been here too, but only once, and in daylight at that.
The weight of this responsibility adds to my already heavy load. The problem
with my memories is that they're dim at best, in no particular order, and
have no particular relevance. Each descent has taken a slightly different
path than the others. Recognizing a tree may simply mean I have made the
same mistake again!
Having said that, I do remember a big dead tree near where the ridge forming
the summit of Washington Column reaches the rim of the valley below North
Dome and the trail takes a hard right towards the gully. I remember taking
the "high road," of always choosing the higher option when confronted
with a fork in the trail. I was not always in the lead on these other descents,
so that complicates things. It's hard to remember the details of route finding
decisions when you didn't make them in the first place. I remember standing
on the rim of the gully, saying to myself, `Only a fool could miss this!'
From the summit of the Column, the only viable trail actually seems to head
in the wrong direction at first, going down and west instead of north and
east. I start second guessing myself immediately. This is a habit I will
continue for a long time this night. It takes us about ten minutes to find
the first dead tree. Cool, I tell myself, right on track. Then we go by
another deadfall, then another. Shit! Which is it? If any? We continue,
finding the `main' trail, losing it, finding it again. One second it seems
a major trail with many, many footprints and around the next bend it disappears
in dense underbrush, giving the impression that no one has passed this way
We often come close to the rim above the East Face of Washington Column,
sensing rather that seeing that vast emptiness of space and the relentless
pull of it's gravity. After fifteen minutes or so, we drop into the depression
between the Column and the apron of dense forest and manzanita that guards
the flanks of North Dome. Already it seems as though we've gone too far,
have been walking too long, to be on the right trail. Just when I'm about
to suggest we backtrack, we come across another big dead tree; this time
I DO recognize it. We are on track and about to make that hard right. Tick.
Milestone number one has just been reached. I allow myself a little conceit;
this is the major route finding obstacle I face and we handled it no problem.
The rest will be a cakewalk. Yeah, right.
Now we begin the long traverse above the Death Slabs. Once again, the emphasis
is on long. Within five minutes, we reach our first problem. The trail splits;
up is a trail that hasn't seen a foot all year. This is not a very convincing
piece of evidence considering the Valley has been closed for more than 2
months and only just recently reopened. Down is a more traveled line but
it appears to head directly off the rim. We choose up and begin climbing
steeply. Argh! This pack is heavy, the straps are cutting off the blood
to my hands, making them feel bloated and cold. My knees are beginning to
hurt and I'm thirsty again. My back is killing me and I'm sweating cold
We stumble about. We lose the trail again. We cross some scary slabs. Some
of it I think I recognize, much of it I have no idea. My second-guessing
becomes a habit. Burl surely tires of hearing me say, `I think I've been
here before.' Up and down the hillside we track, yet always heading in the
general direction of the gully. At some point I make a considerable error
and drop down too far. We end up at the edge of the abyss, following an
increasingly faint trail. Shit. We finally have to backtrack.
Over, under and through bushes, trees, manzanita and rocks. It's murder
on me. Burl is really suffering. I constantly hear the maniacal laughing
of the haulbag as it reaches out and snags obstacles at every opportunity.
Burl handles it all with his usual equanimity. But I can see the strain
in his face. We've now been at it for about an hour and we haven't seen
the gully yet. I'm so damn tired I could cry. I want desperately to take
a break but the pathfinder in my head won't let me stop. We have to keep
going until we find the gully! I tell this to Burl.
"You think I'd still be carrying this damn thing if I didn't agree?"
"Burl," I say panting, "it just never ends. I mean, were
not even close to being finished." I let this and more slip in despair.
I know these comments do nothing to help our cause, but I can't seem to
resist. The descent is actually more taxing than the wall! Burl offers some
grunts that might be taken as sympathy or condolence. Who knows? We press
on. What the Hell else are we going to do?
Finally, we reach a stretch of trail that's so unmistakable I'm certain
we're nearing the gully. We begin a gradual descent, contouring with the
line of the rim. The moonlight is returning as the eclipse winds down. Cosmic
implications aside, I'm glad for the extra light. I can now make out the
rib of the gully and a line of trees out there in space. Burl wants to climb
down to them immediately. Nope. That blackness you see right below us? Death
slabs! Keep going until you literally fall into the gully, that's the trick!
We round a bend and Burl is the first to notice.
"Hear that? Water! We've gotta be close now." The mere thought
of water speeds me up. When I started this thing, I told myself I'd limit
my pace to just breathing though my nose. That has proved impossible. I
have had my heart beat out of control too many times in the last hour. I'm
slightly dizzy, feverish, maybe even a little delirious. I'm drenched with
sweat. These are all mistakes; important ones. But in our haste to get down,
and down in one piece, we know we have to make time. It's a no win proposition.
And then there it is in the moonlight, distinct; the North Dome Gully. We
stand on the edge of a zone of wash out, fifty, maybe a hundred feet across.
A small trickle of water works it's way down the center. Right and down
the gully shoots like a rifle toward the valley floor, almost tunnel-like
in appearance. Up and left it disappears below the massive, and from this
vantage invisible bulk of North Dome. There are cairns everywhere! Like
I said, it's unmistakable once you find it.
"Can't find a damn one when you need it. Now that we know where we
are, there's dozens!" The disgust in Burl's voice mirrors my own sentiments.
I don't know who built all these monuments, but they sure as shit annoy
the hell out of me! We drop the packs and just sit there, assessing the
Aside from my previous catalog of ailments, I also possess the strong urge
to puke and my kidneys hurt. Kidneys; that means water. It means I'm dehydrating.
No surprise there. But it also means that I'm shutting down. It means a
bodily malfunction is underway. The clock is ticking. It's a burning hurt
in the lower back. Not in the center and not where the normal muscle hurts
and nerve pinches hit. This pain is farther out on the sides and slightly
higher. I have been constantly readjusting the pack, trying to find a comfort
zone, the years of backpacking automatically telling my unconscious mind
what to do. But no amount of adjustment will chase this pain away. It comes
from inside. It comes from the core. It means I'm paying the price. At least
I'm experienced enough to recognize it. I've learned this the hard way.
"Burl, my kidneys hurt. I've got to drink some water. As much as possible."
I fill up an empty 2 liter soda bottle. The act of getting up and filling
the bottle just reinforces the urge to vomit. I tell myself to be careful
with the water. As I drink, Burl adds,
"Careful there Dingus. Drink too much and you'll puke." Anyone
who's ever suffered two-a-days football drills knows this hazard. Seasoned
Sierra rats know it too. I take what I can and hand the bottle to him.
I study the moon, now almost completely normal again. We've been at it over
an hour and we're only here! The optimist in me brags that it's in the bag.
The pessimist says there's a long way to go. The intellectual in me keeps
reminding that EVERY step of the way is far longer than both memory and
sight would indicate. And the animal in me just wants to curl up and die.
But the human in me, the human in me insists I get my ass up off that rock
and get my ass down that hill. Human that I am, I listen. Like a gullible
Atlas taking back the weight of the world from Hercules, I again take up
There are a few more cairns down-gully from where we stand. But there is
no trail. Just faint markings of where others have gone and much washout.
I don't remember the gully being this rough and tumble. I move quickly across
loose slopes of gravel, rogue boulders stationed all around awaiting their
opportunity to interrupt my progress. Long, tumbling falls into the chaos
of the gully are the reward for a mistake here. I distinctly remember this
part being short, that there is a clear trail lower down. Burl goes slower.
He's top-heavy and must show care.
I stop and wait often. Can't afford to get too far ahead for two reasons.
The first is that Burl may need my help. The second is he could dislodge
some rock, big or small, and it could bound down the gully. The farther
down I am, the faster it will be going when it reaches me. The likelihood
of a serious impact increases. This is again experience talking. It's easier
to dodge a slow moving rock than a fast one.
I keep expecting the gully to get easier, to get familiar. It doesn't. I
keep expecting to find a cairn. We don't. I look for a trail heading to
the right, back towards Washington Column. It isn't there. Nothing about
this part of the descent rings true! Every step down increases my anxiety.
The second guessing rages anew. We're in the wrong gully. We've missed the
trail. We're too far down. We have to go back up. Maybe we're in a different
gully, farther north? Oh god, I don't have the energy to go back up this
thing! Despair and utter, complete fatigue is all I feel now. I voice my
doubts to Burl and we discuss the options for a while. Recognize it or not,
he says the only way to go is down. I have to agree. We continue.
Down, down, down the loose gully we go. At least there's moonlight. We spot
a point perhaps 400 feet below us where we guess/hope/trust that the trail
will be. We aim for it. It seems as though this final portion of the gully
throws up even more obstacles, just to toy with us. Now, not only is it
loose, jumbled and treacherous; the rocks are boulders of killing size.
We stumble beneath our great burdens. We move with whatever care we can
muster in our tired, smelly bodies. Somehow we navigate even this and finally
emerge from the lower intestines of the gully intact, albeit thoroughly
whipped. A couple of dry, hard North Dome Gully turds; the walking dead.
A cairn! A huge one! Right where we thought the trail would be. Finally,
we believe the truth. We HAVE been coming down North Dome Gully. We traverse
right, out of it's maw and onto an open slope that falls away steeply beneath
us but descends more gradually as it heads off toward the Column. We stop
to drink. Damn. Gauging our progress against the Column, we've barely descended
at all! We're two hours into it and still above the thousand foot mark on
the granite. That means Dingus and Burl have a long, long way to go. I refuse
to think about it, sipping what water my shriveled stomach will accept,
considering the next route finding challenge.
All too soon, five lousy minutes, we rise and continue. Sit too long and
we won't be able to get up again. Traversing back and forth across the endless
slope is our lot now. At least there's a trail; only one and fairly plain.
Just when I begin to take it for granted, it disappears. I find myself in
the middle of another washout, peering out with my headlamp, trying to strike
up the trail again. It finally dawns on me what's happened.
"Burl! The flood! It's the flood that's screwing us. It washed out
the gully. The trail is completely gone. Anywhere we cross a water slope,
the trail has disappeared. It must have rained like a son-of-a-bitch up
here!" We decide we're officially flood victims. Ironic, considering
where we are. Burl speaks quietly.
"Dingus, it's easier to make out the trail with your headlamp off."
Sure enough, he's right. The moon shadows increase depth perception. Off
goes the laser beam. It was beginning to fade anyway. A terrible, but necessary
way to judge the length of a descent; how long the halogen bulb lasts. This
section requires care negotiating some 3rd class slabs and some gravely
areas. Burl finds a bolt on a slab and we walk right over it. We can't comprehend
why anyone would rappel here. Slowly but surely we pick our way down.
I keep looking up at Washington Column, amazed by it's steepness, gratified
to see we're over half way down the rock. Most of the Death Slabs are above
us now. I cringe looking up at them. It's easy to see the hazard. The closer
a party descends to the Prow, the higher the slabs, the greater the danger.
We find more running water and I insist on refilling the bottle one more
time. It's the only thing that has kept me going. Oh, but it's hard to drink
that water! It almost gags me, yet a nagging thirst rages in the back of
my throat. It's not a cold night, but I shiver when we stop moving, the
sweat doing it's job too well. I'm kind of surprised that I still have water
to sweat! Hour three approaches without notice.
The endless slabs finally lead to trees clustered about the base of the
Column. The optimist says we're almost there. The pessimist forgets himself
and agrees. The animal is curiously silent. But the intellectual warns that
the tree section is much longer than it appears. I whack that arrogant bastard
with a stick and tell him to shut the fuck up. The human gets me going yet
again. I can't help feeling better as we enter the oaks.
Hour three finds us somewhere in that eternal forest. Little luminescent
dots are tacked to a few trees, trying to guide us. We find them, lose them,
find them again and finally lose them altogether. The final few hundred
yards of slope have us bushwhacking through oak trees, brush, and house-sized
We come to an impasse. It's ridiculous. We've come all this way. We've been
lost, found; over and over again. We're so close to the valley floor we
can smell it. I can hear the river in the distance. Yet before us is the
very first obstacle we've encountered that requires us to remove our packs;
a short six foot vertical drop. An easy jump, but impossible with these
monstrous packs on. I shake off the Dingus pact in disgust.
Three years before, Angus and I came through this very gap, lost then as
we are now. It's not like we're lost without hope, but it just seems ironic
that in all that time, my sense of trail hasn't improved. I throw my pack
down the gap. A few minutes later Burl stops and ralphs the chili he ate
on the summit. I sit well away from the carnage. I fear even the smell will
cause the same in me. I ask for the water attached to his pack. He gets
it, takes a big swig and spits it out, takes another and hands me the bottle.
I look at the mouth of the bottle. I look at him. I look over at the spot
where he puked. I take a big drink and hand it back without comment.
After maybe three hours and fifteen minutes we stumble out of the live oak
forest onto the trail that winds it's way along this side of the valley,
between Mirror Lake and the Ahwahnee Hotel. A veritable highway. We don't
stop. There are no comments. Burl turns right and begins the final walk
of the night. I follow slightly behind, kidneys on fire, wasted but not
wanting to puke still. This trail rises and falls in gentle swells, but
these little climbs wind me now nonetheless. In fact, they whip my ass.
But what am I gonna do?
The optimist is mute. The pessimist reigns supreme. The animal expired on
the slabs. The intellectual passed away in the forest. And the human, that
cursed human, requires that I continue to place one foot in front of the
other. He's so damned demanding. He won't let me stop, ever. I once joked
with Burl that I could actually die while walking and my thighs would continue
to pump for at least a half a mile, all on their own, simply out of dogged
This walk takes us around the base of Washington Column, so alternately,
every climbing route can be reviewed in the moonlight. As tired as I am,
I stop several times in amazement. This cliff is steep! I can't believe
we lived up there. And there! There! See that funny sloping dihedral in
the middle of that overhanging wall? We slept there!
"Burl, see where we bivied?" Burl is not impressed. He keeps walking,
autopilot engaged. I follow, but just can't resist looking back, trying
to store as many of the moonlight impressions I can. Descents that hurt
this bad don't happen every day (thank god). So I don't want to forget any
The last hundred yards is no different than the first. Like Hell it's not!
I can't tell you how good it feels to know we're almost done. Suddenly,
the hotel looms out of the trees. Oh how I'd love to check into the Presidential
Suite, take a long, hot bath and quietly drown in the tub. And now we're
approaching my truck, parked where we left it. Burl does a cool move, coming
up on the truck rapidly and actually hurling the pig into the back. My tailgate
doesn't work and he got it over in the only appropriate fashion. I have
a tougher time wrestling my pack into the corral, but yes, it's finally
"What time is it, Dingus?" Time? Time; let's see.
"It's one forty five Burl." Just under four hours. We left the
top of the column at ten PM. The word ordeal is an injustice to what we
just did. All we face now is a 3 hour drive home. Burl has to be at work
at seven. I'm off, but intend to be home when my daughters get up later
today. We head out of the valley after stopping at the store to get a few,
yes a few cold drinks out of the soda machine. I crave salt so I also nab
a bag of greasy potato chips too. I got down without puking, a major victory.
Guess the recovery process has begun already.
The drive out of the valley, under that blazing moon, is largely void of
talk. We can't help but take in some of the grandeur, some of the intensity,
as we pass the valley landmarks though. Yosemite Falls are ghostly. The
Lower Brother reminds us of past adventures. And the Captain owns the night,
dominating the world with it's mighty presence. Burl looks up at the Dolt
Tower as we pass.
"D'ya see that Dingus? I saw a headlamp up there." Hmp. Normally,
I'd be jealous of anyone up there as I drove by. Not this time. Have at
it boys and girls. Dingus is outta here. The descent is over.