Welcome to Yosemite – By Walker Emerson

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My first multi pitch climb was the Nose of El Cap; 3,000 feet of difficult climbing.

While most seasoned climbers take three to five days to climb the route, we did it in just 29 hours!

It was not because of me that we accomplished this; the show was entirely run by my friend Fernando Motta. I would later learn that finding partners in Yosemite is difficult, and I had hit the jackpot.  

I work at a climbing gym. It was the end of the week, and I had stowed my tools in my locker. I was planning to drive to Tahoe, to escape the summer heat, when Fernando asked me if I wanted to climb El Cap with him. I hesitated and blinked at him. “No.” I said. “I don’t think I can?!”

Two weeks later he asked me again. Ever since I had declined his offer, I had been wondering what it would be like to climb the huge wall; I agreed.

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Me, realizing what I had just gotten myself into. Photo by Walker Emerson.

It was June 17th, and it was hot; hot as if the earth had been pushed closer to the sun. El Cap is so large that the temperature varies as much as twenty degrees from the base to the summit. Fernando’s plan was to begin at dusk and climb through the night, thus avoiding the sun on the lower half of the wall. Which meant we would drink less water, and our packs would be lighter. With lighter packs, we would move faster.

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LEFT: Fernando making tape gloves at the base of the Nose. RIGHT: Fernando feeling it ‘maybe just a little’ on El Cap Tower, less than halfway. Photos by Walker Emerson.

This was to be my first multi-pitch climb. I had led a 5.9, a 10b, and an 11a on gear, none of which were confidence building. But I wasn’t going to have to lead anything. I couldn’t believe it; I was going to climb El Cap with a pair of jumars, and in my tennis shoes.

We set off at 8:15pm. Once on the wall, it sank in. Can we make it I thought? We’re going pretty slowly. I’ll just jug this next pitch in the hopes that we might bail.

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Me following the Great Roof. Photo Walker Emerson.

I tried everything I could think of to distract myself from the widening gap between me and the ground. I forced myself to not look down and I distributed my weight gingerly as I ascended the rope. Climbing ropes are tested to over 5000 pounds of force. My measly 180 pounds wasn’t tipping any scales. I backed myself up three times at the anchor. But this was not a fear to be reasoned with. My mistrust would only subside with time.

At 2:00am on June 18th, 500 feet from the top, I sat on a large slanting ledge – Camp Six. Fernando was working his way through a long sustained aid section, the Changing Corners. I flicked my headlamp off and on to conserve battery and let my eyes adjust to the dark. The smell of urine filled my nose. I was growing impatient and cold. When we left the ground, it had been so hot I neglected to bring anything but my thin jacket.

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Tom Evans pretty much summed it up with this shot and quote “Fernando leading Pancake Flake on their 29 hour push on the Nose. Ouch!!!!” Photo by Tom Evans.

I yelled up to Fernando, “I’m getting cold!”

He shouted back down. “Do some push-ups!” This felt like a ridiculous thing to do after 2500 feet of climbing but I laughed and did a few push-ups. It helped.

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On top of the world. Photo Walker Emerson

The final pitches of the route are steep, and I would swing far out from the wall after removing each piece of gear. I was thankful that it was dark and all I could see was the small bubble of light that my head lamp illuminated around me.

I jugged past impossible looking cracks. In awe, I asked Fernando how hard was the last pitch. “That one was 5.10, dude.” he said. As Fernando led the final steep bolt ladder to the summit, I watched the shape of Half Dome become slowly visible in the East. I couldn’t wait to get off of El Cap. After 29 hours I was done – mentally and physically; my mouth was dry and my brain fried.

Fernando climbed out of sight. We made it! I thought to myself. The rope pulled faster and faster and then it stopped. I paused and waited for him to yell down that the rope was secure and that I could begin jugging, but I heard nothing. I placed my jumars on the rope and began to weight them. The rope went taut and I prayed it would hold me just one more time.

As I began to jug, a whooshing sound shot straight past me. I watched as a person with their arms stretched out plummeted to the ground below. My mind began to race. Had I just pulled Fernando off the summit?

No, the rope was still taught. Had Fernando base jumped off the summit, and left me to find my own way down? Maybe. The base jumper shot out away from the wall as their suit caught the air and propelled them forward. The parachute deployed, and they glided into the meadow below.

I jugged to the summit as the glow in the east crossed the sky, bringing the base into view, now 3,000 feet below. The exposure sank in, and I relished the final minutes of the climb. On top of the world, with nothing but air below me, I pulled onto the summit.

Fernando lay in an exhausted heap next to the tree he had tied the rope to.

“Thank you Fernando”, I said. “Thank you.”

I watched the sun rise above Half Dome. My legs rushed with blood as I jumped up into the air to catch the first rays of sun on my face. I was happy to be alive.

Two years ago Fernando Motta died in a tragic base jumping accident.

Fernando is my hero. Everything I first learned about climbing big walls was from him. He showed me how to be calm and calculated on the wall. He believed that minimum gear and a fast pace is the way to climb in Yosemite.

Today I have climbed El Cap 15 times and even in a casual sub ten hours. Words can’t accurately express how grateful and lucky I feel to have learned from one of the best.

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LEFT: Fernando on the summit ready for me. RIGHT: Evening light on El Cap. Photos by Walker Emerson.

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Walker Emerson is a contributing writer for the PG Blog. He also sets routes at Planet Granite under the alias ‘Smash’. When he’s not plugging grips and jugging lines, he can be found on weekends clipping bolts at Jailhouse or sailing the granite seas of Yosemite.

To keep up with Walker’s adventures, follow him on the PG Blog, join him on InstagramVimeo and Facebook.