The Big One
By Calvin Laatsch, the Institute’s Conference and Retreat Coordinator. Calvin originally posted this to his personal blog, Live Close. We publish accounts of the places Institute staff and graduate students visit in our Road Trip series.
I notice that my knuckles are raw and chaffed from stuffing my fists into the wide crack leading up into an endless wall of granite. I pause to note how vibrant my blood looks against the rock. I’m hyper aware of this moment, but am quickly snapped back to my precarious position on the side of El Capitan. Glancing at my last piece of protection, a stuck cam 20 feet below me, and I feel completely overwhelmed…
“Jonathan!” I yell into the wind. “I’m scared!”
There is a pregnant pause, before he hollers back, “Me too!”
That was 5 years ago. Jonathan and I decided to retreat after another night halfway up the Nose. With that experience seared in my memory, I have spent countless hours dreaming of a return, trying to identify and improve on my weaknesses, wrestling with the feeling that I was not ready. Fear can be incredibly motivating. Whether in climbing, in work, or in love, facing fear is an experience that all people can relate to.
This year has given me ample opportunity to try hard at facing fears. Returning to climb “The Nose” on El Capitan, is a way to measure my progress. My last blog was a reflection on being at a personal low point. Now, more than a year after breaking my leg, I have changed in many ways, but I still struggle the same challenges. No matter how much I overcome, life will continue to test me. I hope that being vulnerable, and opening up in this blog will remind me to be humble and express gratitude for the chances to try hard, and to celebrate both successes and failures.
The Nose generally follows the shade line up the center of El Capitan for nearly 3,000 feet.
With 30 pitches of climbing, The Nose is twice the size of anything I have climbed in a single day. Retreating from The Nose revealed a huge potential to grow. It has been in the back of my mind year after year as I sought out new climbing goals. This winter, I managed to arrange time off from work, and started talking with my friend Andy about a spring climbing trip. A year and a half ago, we had climbed El Cap together on the Salathe Wall over the course of 6 days. This challenge had been a profound test for me then, and we have been talking about climbing The Nose ever since. Adding to the drama, it would be the first big climbing trip since I broke my ankle last winter. I felt like my physical therapy was complete, but this would be a major test. The miles I ran in the rain this winter, the pitches of climbing I managed to squeeze in after work, helped me reach a high level of physical fitness, but my mental preparation was hard to gauge. Andy and I expected to have time to build up to the main event with some time in the Utah desert. The day before my flight, however, we decided to go straight to Yosemite in hopes of capitalizing on a clear weather window.
After a long day of travel, we drove into Yosemite Valley passing below the vast white rock face of El Capitan. I felt nauseous with a mix of fear and excitement. It is a familiar feeling; anticipating a challenge that will push me to grow. There will be blood, sweat, and tears. There will be fear, and the chance to redefine my limits. After, a half-day test run of the lower part of the climb, Andy and I took a day of rest and made final preparations for our “Nose In A Day” attempt.
The author, “jugging” up the rope to catch the lead climber, with over a thousand feet of air underneath him.
At 5:30am the next morning, I start climbing up the first pitch by headlamp.
A friend’s simple words of encouragement rang in my head, “You’re ready, Calvin”. With no time to spare, Andy and I hardly see each other as we race up the wall, trying to move smoothly and efficiently. In between long blocks of lead climbing, I have brief moments for self care. Wolfing down food and water, it seems impossible to keep up with the calories I am burning. At the halfway point, by body begins to rebel. With my forearms cramping, and fatigue setting in, each move feels more taxing than the last. I have to peel my hand open and shake out the cramp, reach, and pull up, only to have my forearms seize up again. This unfortunate consequence of dehydration is referred to as “wall claw”. As doubt creeps into my psyche, I continue to sweat, curse and bleed my way up the Nose. I remind myself that if I can just keep moving, we will get to the top.
The scale of El Capitan is hard to capture. Like being out in the open ocean, but in sea of granite. The small dark spot in the top right corner of this picture is another climber above the “Great Roof”
There are so many memories I want to share from that day. Leaping and running across the rock face on the King Swing where the route moves from one crack system to another 60 feet away. Getting smeared with green slime as I navigated my way under the great roof. Singing the “Reading Rainbow” song with another pair of Nose In A Day climbers. Handing the rack over to Andy after dark, and watching his headlamp disappearing above me into the inky darkness. After 15 hours of continuous climbing, we were out of water, were both mentally and physically exhausted, but we were having fun.
The possibility that we may succeed propelled us on into the night. Just after midnight, 18.5 hours after we had started, Andy and I topped out on El Cap. We hugged and howled out into the moonlit valley. Our celebration was brief, as we still had a few hours of descending, before we could relax our focus. Our descent was long but uneventful. When we got to the Valley floor, we grabbed the bikes we had stashed the day before and rode the empty street back to the van. Electrified by our success, and awakened by the cold air, the reality of what we had just done began to settle in.
At surface level, what we had done was fairly simple. We had climbed up a really big piece of rock. I would love to say that in climbing The Nose I had become a better person, or somehow sorted my life out. The reality is, I returned to the ground with my problems, fears, and doubts intact. This climb reminds me that my shortcomings are opportunities to improve. I aim to apply the same tenacity towards being a better friend, an outstanding colleague, and a man of integrity. The value I draw from this climb is to not stop dreaming, and to trust in myself. I’m grateful to Jonathan, Andy, and all the people that supported me in this process. I’m grateful for failure, success, suffering, and elation. I still fear the unknown, but climbing 3,000 feet of granite in under 24 hours feels like good training for the big obstacles in life.