BEYOND THE SKY
I am out of balance. I hang dangerously off center but I’m oblivious, until some dim awareness of the world shakes me awake.
I lift my head up slightly and look toward my feet. Sure enough, I’m not flat. My body is sloping downward and I can barely see the tips of my toes in the faint moonlight. This wouldn’t be anything to worry about if it weren’t for the fact that I’m on a cot pinned to a sheer granite wall two thousand feet above the valley floor.
My shifting around was enough to wake my climbing partner, Tom Paxton. Pax is lean, but with a muscled frame that looks like he could haul a bull if the circumstances called for it. I don’t know much about his past, and he knows nothing about mine, and that makes for an ideal pairing. We both live without rearview mirrors, driving ahead through our days, and only when absolutely necessary tapping the brake. Pax never boasts, another admirable quality. There are plenty of climbers who talk and never summit; Pax summits, without complaint or glory.
At the moment, like me, he’s trying to make sense of what’s happened to the cot. Since it is just barely long enough and wide enough for the two of us he was bound to sense my slightest motion. We’re sleeping head to toe so when he lifts up, he sees that he’s sloping dangerously upward—his head is a good ten inches lower than his feet.
We had spent a half hour pinning the cot into the wall to make sure it was secure. We jammed thick aluminum blocks into a crack in the granite face, pulling them tight, wedging them deep into the rock. The blocks are solid, they could hold the weight of an elephant; there’s no way that they’re coming loose. Something else must be going wrong.
As my eyes adjust to the dark, the strips of webbing that hold the cot together come into focus. The strip attached to one of the corners looks like it is lengthening, stretching out like a rubber band.
After a few moments, I shake off my sleep haze and my brain starts processing things more carefully. I realize that the webbing isn’t stretching; our situation is much worse than that. The webbing is unraveling. In a few more seconds the webbing will come completely undone and our cot will drop out from under us. There is nothing we can do to stop that from happening.
“We’re going to fall.”
I look over the edge of the cot, down into the void, and wait for the inevitable.
There was a time when people thought that El Capitan could not be climbed. It is easy to understand why. The hammerhead of granite bursts out of the ground and rises straight up, three thousand sheer vertical feet, looming over Yosemite Valley in central California.
Nothing man has ever built has stood this high. Even after a century of hoisting scaffolding, welding steel, and pouring concrete, no building on the planet reaches even two thirds the height of El Cap. When you stand at its base, arch back, and look up, it seems to rise without end, farther than the limits of vision, past the bounds of Earth, pushing up and beyond the sky.
Magnificent, imposing, the rock taunts you, daring you to climb it. There was no question that one day someone would try.
Early attempts were unsuccessful for a simple reason: humans aren’t built to scale a smooth vertical wall. We don’t have sticky pads on our feet, like a gecko. We don’t have the clinging legs of a centipede or the hooves of a mountain goat. Flat and long, our feet are best designed to propel us off flat ground, away from an oncoming mastodon.
To scale a crack in a vertical wall, your legs and feet have to be used in ways that aren’t part of our evolutionary development: you pivot a knee out wide to one side, slide your toes into the crack in the rock face, and then twist and press down on the foot with all your body weight, mashing your toes hard into the crack and locking your foot into place. The bones of the foot are compressed and twisted, crushed to conform to the profile of the crack.
The hands follow the same pattern: fingers, knuckles, a fist all getting mashed and pivoted into the crack. The granite is unforgiving and the hand placements need to be precise. If a hand slides against the rough granite, the rock flays off a layer of skin like a potato peeler.
Twist, crush, repeat—that is the methodical technique that propels a climber up the crack in a vertical rock face.
If at some point the crack thins out, too narrow to mash in a foot, then the climber searches for options, balancing on features and contours often no thicker than a nickel, or smearing the rubber of the climbing shoe on the rock, hoping that friction alone is sufficient to stay pinned in place.
If all else fails, climbers come back down and look for a new route. But now they face another evolutionary disadvantage. Our eyes are well placed when we’re climbing up since we can have good visibility of our foot and hand placements. In down climbing, the view is obscured, the balance less assured, the toe sweeps the air searching for the placement.
So the granite monolith of El Cap was unyielding and the requirements for scaling it were inhuman. The climber who would be the first to conquer it would have steady nerves, astounding patience, and a body fully adapted to scaling the vertical world.
Warren Harding, the climber who first scaled El Cap, was an inspiration to me. I was fourteen years old when I first heard about his climb. From that moment on, I wanted his adventure to be my adventure.
His adventure began in the summer of 1957 when he and his two teammates dropped their gear at the base of El Cap like so many other climbers had before them. They carefully pieced together their route, zigzagging up yard by yard. They established camps in the sheer rock wall. They linked their camps with ropes fixed into the rock with pitons—hammering the four-inch-long metal spikes into the cracks—then returned back down to the valley floor.
Progress was slow; too slow. After four laborious months, with the cold settling in and snowstorms approaching, the team was forced to halt the climb for the winter. El Cap was crushing them.
The next summer there was more disappointment. One of Harding’s teammates fractured a leg; the other was discouraged and dropped out. It seemed that El Cap would defy another attempt. Harding, determined and fixed on the prize, found two new climbing partners and faced the stone once again.
Months ticked by as the team continued to push upward, establishing a few dozen more feet of the route each day and then descending back down to the valley floor to rest. As fall approached, the fixed ropes began fraying. Weakened and unraveling after a year of use, the ropes would never last through another winter. If the team couldn’t scale El Cap before the snows came, nearly eighteen months of work would be lost. It was now or never for Harding.
They loaded up their gear and took to the wall for one final try. With the weather turning and ropes weakening, they knew the odds were completely against them.
The team moved quickly at the start of the climb. It was familiar; they had scaled it dozens of times in going up and down the wall establishing the route. Then hope faded; an early winter storm settled into the valley and they were forced to take shelter on a ledge and wait it out. Days went by; cold rain pounded at the rock, the wind whipped at their backs.
When the storm finally broke, their rhythm was shattered, their morale draining away. Their pace slowed to just five feet an hour—a caterpillar could move faster. They faced a choice: push past the fatigue and go higher; or descend, pack up, forget about El Cap, and get on with their lives.
They decided to push on.
On November 12, 1958, nearly five hundred days after Harding started the climb, he and his team hauled themselves over the lip of El Cap. They had done what no one had ever done before, what some people had considered utterly impossible: they had scaled three thousand feet of sheer vertical granite. They had started on a flat valley floor and propelled themselves directly up, straighter than a rocket, directly into the sky.
They challenged nature and suffered a beating for it. Their hands were bloodied and calloused, bodies scarred, feet crushed and bruised. But the day was theirs. They waged war against gravity and, against all odds, had won. They, and they alone, had conquered that colossal piece of granite. As a boy, when I first heard this story, I couldn’t imagine a more spectacular ending.
When their feet finally touched the stable ground of the valley floor, there was no press corps to greet them, no microphones or cameras. The public didn’t care. Harding’s achievement was in the shadow of another, more famous, climb. There was euphoria when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Mount Everest a few years earlier—their achievement made world headlines. But the conquering of El Cap was a climbing footnote. Harding didn’t grumble; instead, he developed a following.
With Harding demonstrating that gravity could be defied, climbers began migrating to Yosemite Valley. They brought with them a new attitude: they swore off the use of pitons. Pounding the metal spikes into the wall severely damaged the rock, disfiguring it, leaving streaks of rust and widening the cracks. And since many of the pitons were left behind in the rock, climbers began viewing it as a garbage trail.
Climbers developed alternative hardware that would allow an ascent without leaving a trace. The piton was replaced with machined bits of metal and camming devices that a climber could slip into fissures of the rock, and the second climber, following behind, could pull out on ascent.
Over the decades, gear became lighter, sturdier, allowing for cleaner ascents that didn’t scar the rock. With the new gear came speed; Harding’s five-hundred-day ascent was cut down to seven days, then three, then two. Pitons were replaced by equipment with names like bat hooks, Camelots, Ball Nutz, and Big Bros. The new equipment made Harding’s gear look like museum pieces: quaint and unreliable.
On our climb of El Cap, Pax and I have all that modern gear with us and we’re confident that every piece is 100 percent reliable, manufacturer-tested and -approved. I have been climbing for years and I have never known the gear to fail—mine or anyone else’s. Never. The likelihood of a critical piece of equipment actually breaking is vanishingly small, say, one in a million.
I look back now and realize that suffering the astronomically unlikely one-in-a-million event should have given me a sense of foreboding. Instead, that improbability would govern my next ten years, challenging a sense of imperviousness that I had proudly cultivated. At the moment, those unlikely odds are governing the next tenth of a second of my life.
Thwwwwip. The last few stitches of webbing unravel and the cot drops out from under us.
Before we had gone to sleep we were careful to tighten our harnesses around our waists and clip them onto ropes secured onto the rock face. But the ropes have some slack, so as the cot drops out beneath us, we begin to fall until the rope goes taut, takes our weight, pivots our feet under us, and then pulls us toward the wall, slamming us into the rock.
We hang there in the darkness, our only protection a strand of nine-millimeter-thick rope that keeps us from plunging two thousand feet to the valley floor.
If either of us had tied a meager knot or were loosely clipped into the anchor, we would be in free fall right now, moments away from having the life crushed out of us. In the history of El Cap climbing, dozens of climbers have met that fate. But having avoided that ourselves, there is comfort now, ease. It is a remarkably peaceful moment.
I walk my feet up the rock face a few steps and lean back on the rope, staring up at the night sky.
Breathe in, breathe out. Calm.
With the immediate danger past us, we now have to focus on the next dilemma. We are dangling like puppets in the pitch black of night. We need to find a way out of this.
I have no idea how much of our gear plunged to the valley floor below. That will become all too clear the next day. For now, what we need most is some light.
A fifteen-foot circle of light cuts through the darkness, spotlighting the granite. The beam of Pax’s headlamp starts to move across the rock wall, slowly rastering back and forth.
I unclip my headlamp from a belt loop on my harness and join the search, sweeping my light across the sheer granite face, scanning for a place—a ledge, a cave, a protrusion—anywhere to take the weight off our harnesses and rest.
Pax finds it first. “There’s a ledge,” he calls out. Those are the first words spoken since the cot collapsed and if he’d yelled that out at midnight at one of the populated camps in the valley below, he would have awakened someone who would yell at us to shut up. But here, thousands of feet above them all, we’re out of earshot and his words are welcome news.
Pax’s headlamp is illuminating a feature in the rock that is roughly twenty feet below us and ten feet off to the side. It’s a small ledge, smaller than our collapsed cot, only about the size of a couple two-by-four planks. It is meager, just a fraction of scaffolding, but it is the only option we have.
“Looks comfortable, Pax. Let’s get down there.” With that, I shift my headlamp’s beam back to my harness. We have to untie from the safety rope we’ve been dangling on and clip onto another rope—one long enough to reach the ledge below.
From my harness I unclip a rappel device, a thick, sturdy figure 8–shaped piece of metal that fills the palm of my left hand. With my right hand I thread a rope through the top loop of the 8 and then clip the bottom loop onto the harness. I take in the slack and lean back on the rope. It takes my weight.
The only thing in my vision now is the rope tied onto my harness; the rest of the world once again falls back into darkness. It’s time to untie the safety knot.
This is a moment that might give some people pause. The safety line is secure: it rescued us from a two-thousand-foot plunge; it has proven its reliability. The rappel line, on the other hand, hangs loosely below my feet, untethered and swaying in a modest breeze. One could imagine a cascade of problems that might result in shifting to that untested line.
That is certainly one way to size up the options: untested versus proven. But that would be the wrong way to look at it. If I assessed things that way, I would never have gotten off the ground to do this climb in the first place.
Here’s the way I see it: either I untie the safety line and rappel through the open air down toward the ledge; or I continue to dangle on the safety line with no possibility of rest or relief. It’s not a complicated situation. I untie the knot without hesitation.
Lowering is easy, but that won’t get me to the ledge. If all I do is rappel straight down I’ll pass by the ledge, which is ten feet off to my right side. So as I lower down, I’m looking for a way to climb over to the ledge. But nothing appears. In the glow of my headlamp all I see is smooth, featureless stone; there aren’t any cracks or holds that I can use to haul myself over.
There are features to my left, and that will have to do. I’ll climb up and over to my left, and then I’ll have to let go of the rock and try to swing over to the ledge.
I lower down until the ledge is just about at eye level and then I start climbing up to my left. When I think I’m at the necessary height, I pause for a breath, then I lean back on the rope, pull my feet in, and let go.
I swing free, into the darkness, penduluming to the right.
I rise up and over the ledge and drop my feet down on the flat, firm surface. Done. I’ll get some rest tonight. I can relax now, reflect.
The superstar of El Cap, Warren Harding, no doubt faced a moment like this. To succeed, he had to shrug off crises without concern. His team members had dropped out, his equipment was nearing failure, the weather was unforgiving, the summit desperately out of reach. What kept Harding climbing?
I think the answer is this: Harding’s spine was fortified with steel, and it gave him a cool indifference to disaster.
That evening on El Cap, with my back leaning against the cold granite and my feet hanging over the rock ledge, I thought about what just happened. My nerves had been steady; I was calm and detached. I hadn’t always been this way. Growing up, I hadn’t been the kid who at two years old was fearlessly scaling bookcases or balancing on slender tree branches. I had become this way.
When I was eleven years old my Ecuadorian mother, Zaida Sojos-Vela, died from brain cancer. The struggle ended, and death was accepted, on the day when the doctor matter-of-factly explained to my father that they had just tried the last drug that was available.
“There is nothing left to do. Zaida will die within a couple months.”
My father described that moment to me when I was a few years older, old enough to understand the direness of the event. In his telling me the story his voice had acquired the very same clinical dispassion of the doctor, though I’m sure that when he heard the words, rather than when he told me the words years later, he was devastated.
I had been preparing for that moment, my mother’s death, for years. I saw her long slow grinding decline, from cane, to walker, to wheelchair. Then, near the end, I wouldn’t see her for days at a time as she suffered quietly, lying flat, behind the closed door of her bedroom.
That last time she came out of the bedroom was to do something for me, to cut some brownies out of the tin that my father had made for my birthday. She was laying on the sofa in the living room, my father at her side, when I walked into the kitchen and saw the unevenly cut jagged pile of brownies. I assumed it was my dad who had blundered around with the knife.
“Who cut these? They’re all messed up.”
Those were the last words my mother heard me speak. A week later my father ushered me and my brothers in to her hospital bedroom for one last visit. Her mind was drifting by then, lubricated by morphine. She had no idea who I was. It was then that I recognized the impact of what I had said a few days earlier.
I’m sure she felt dismay at not being able to do something so modest as slice me a few brownies on my birthday. It probably took what little energy she had left in her just to lift the knife. My ungrateful, foolish words cut far more deeply.
There was nothing I could do to correct those final words I’d said to her. As I saw it, at eleven years old, I could either be weighed down by regret or act like it never happened. I chose the latter path.
Days later, my mother was buried. I remember returning home from her funeral and playing table hockey with a friend. I forced our typical banter as the puck bounced around the metal frame. With my eyes dry, I worked desperately to treat the day like it was any other. That sounds heartless as I confess it now. Yet, after witnessing her years of slow painful deterioration and telling her those final words, I reacted by thickening my defenses. I decided that I would never again let something cut into me so deeply. For decades I allowed my life to drift along with little warmth or purpose. As I grew older, I kept mostly to myself, lived by my own rules, and stayed on the move.
The next morning Pax and I assess our situation. The cot, dangling flat against the rock wall above us, is ruined; we won’t be using it again. With no place to sleep between here and the top of the wall, we have no choice now. We must finish the climb before nightfall. To do that, we need to lighten our load.
Pax grips the cot, arms spread wide, a corner in each hand, and looks over at me. We are 2,500 feet straight up and there isn’t a soul below us. While Pax holds the frame, I unclip it from the hauling rope.
“Adios,” Pax says. He lets the cot slip out of his hands.
This can work out just fine, I remember thinking as we watch the cot plummet straight down, picking up speed. Sure, it will be mangled when it hits bottom, but we can collect all the parts, box them up, and send them back to the manufacturer with an explanation of what happened. Maybe they’ll replace it, no money lost. And the money was key. We were living on a lean budget, and buying a new $800 cot wasn’t a possibility.
As the cot continues its free fall, it catches some wind. It pauses its downward plunge as the end turns flat and it transitions from a straight-down fall into a graceful arch.
“That sucks,” Pax sums up our situation. “Keep your eye on it,” he yells, eyes squinting in the sun, hand flat over his eyebrows. “We have to get that cot back when we get back down.”
As the cot starts to drift away from the wall of El Cap, for the first time in all the times I’ve climbed here, I actually look out over the valley. I had always been so consumed by the climb that all I ever saw was the block of granite in front of me. I would only see the cracks, the lines, the paths upward.
Now, for the first time, I’m actually getting a sense of the place. I’ve turned my back to the granite and am seeing Yosemite for the first time.
The cot is flitting in the wind now, riding the current, butterflying on the gusts. It no longer seems like pieces of hard aluminum fastened together with bolts. It is gliding like a bird slipping across the horizon, down over the colossal unclimbable redwoods—straight as flagpoles and hundreds of feet tall—that fill the valley floor.
On any typical day, dozens of spectators look up at El Cap with binoculars and telescopes keeping watch on climbers. They are there now, watching all this unfold.
“You know,” I realize, looking down at them dotting the valley floor, “there’s no way they can figure out why we just did that.” It would be like watching a neighbor toss his bed out a window.
I’m hoping that one of the spectators will now do the neighborly thing. So long as the cot continues its path out into the valley, it will clear the redwoods and drop down into the clearing. Perhaps one of the observers will collect the cot and hold on to it for us.
Then the wind shifts slightly and the cot changes its glide pattern. It begins to make its way back to the base of El Cap, away from the clearing. This could be even better. If it lands at the base of the climb, we can pick it up on our way out. Our luck, I thought, just might be improving.
Suddenly, the cot stops moving. It comes to rest on top of a two-hundred-foot-tall redwood tree.
Over the next several hours we cover the last five hundred vertical feet to the top of El Cap. Our pace is steady, deliberate. We adhere to the mantra of climbing: economy of motion. Preserving the necessary energy requires that a climber make no unnecessary moves, that positions are optimized with the arms providing balance, the legs the propulsion. Bulk is a liability; a clear mind an asset. Goliaths don’t rule the rock, Davids do.
As climbing evolved from the lumbering five-hundred-day ascent by Harding to quicker harder climbs, the sport required better fitness, higher strength-to-weight ratio, more poise, and greater flexibility. Climbers became athletes. But they didn’t have the muscled physique of a football running back. Instead, leaner was better and women were as competitive as men. In fact, a woman holds one of the most coveted records in the history of Yosemite climbing. In 1993 Lynn Hill became the first person to ascend El Cap—the very same route as Harding—without using a single piece of equipment to haul herself up. As remarkable as that was, a year later she repeated that feat with blazing speed, this time going from the valley floor to the top in less than twenty-four hours.
Pax and I continue up the rock face. I move at a snail’s pace compared to other climbers. Yosemite draws the best climbers in the world, and there is always someone better than me, often right on my tail. This route Pax and I are on will take us two and a half days. Three weeks from now, a team from Germany will do this route and set a new speed record: seventeen hours.
That accomplishment will be overshadowed by the feat of another climber, a member of a unique breed of human: the free soloist.
Buffeted by supreme confidence, the free soloist scales the rock without ropes or a partner. And here the tales of Yosemite reach mythic scale.
There is the story of the free solo climber who reached a section of rock, 2,500 feet up, that had a crack too small for him to plug his fingers into. So he pulled out two small pieces of gear, put one in each hand, then alternately reached up and plunged them into the quarter-inch-wide crack and hauled himself up with a series of one-armed pull-ups. One missed gear placement and he would fall a half mile straight down to his death. He made it without incident, without even sweating, so the story goes.
I know that some people believe that free soloists are foolhardy. But I can think of only one word to describe what these people do: necessary. This is the only way they would think of climbing. And they have to climb.
Like most climbers, I dabbled in free soloing. Once, when I was alone, scaling a block of granite and about forty feet off the ground, I lost my balance. My right foot was on a thin ledge, my left foot, unsupported, hung free off to the side, providing a counterweight. A few fingers on my left hand were braced against a quarter-inch-deep vertical notch, allowing me to lean my body to the right.
I couldn’t hold this position for long, but I wouldn’t need to. I moved my body further to the right and reached several inches above me to what seemed like a reliable handhold. I had thought the hold was a solid pocket, deep enough to slip up to the first knuckle of two fingers. As my fingers neared the feature, I realized that it was merely a discoloration—there was no pocket.
This is when a climber pauses and reevaluates, pulls back and analyzes, searches for a new route. I had been able to carry out precisely that type of rational detachment in countless situations before. Not this time.
As I review that moment now, the only reason I can offer for not making that cool detached climbing assessment is that I thought I had done all the planning I needed to when I was on the ground sizing up the route. I was now executing my very deliberate plan. When I reached up for that pocket I had already determined that it was the only way up. There was no other route; I was committed. There was no way to down climb.
I made a mental shift. When what I thought was a pocket turned out to be nothing more than smooth rock, I accepted that I was going to hit the ground. Instead of evaluating options for going up, I began to prepare myself for the fall.
At forty feet high on an eighty-five-degree-angled slab of rock, I could manage the fall if I could roll when I hit, displacing the energy in the impact. The alternative would be a disaster. If I hit the ground flat-footed and rigid, the impact would go straight up my back and cause a compression fracture in my spine.
I looked down at the ground and my right foot popped off the ledge, as if my body simply conceded the inevitable and yielded to gravity.
I don’t remember the fall. I covered that distance in little more than a second. What I do remember is hearing a snapping sound when I hit the ground and rolled.
I took stock: there was no blood on the ground, no pain in my arms or back. So far, so good. My right leg was fine; the left leg was throbbing. Staring at my toes, I pivoted the left foot, moving it forward and back. Yes, it hurt, but there was mobility. Perhaps I had imagined that I heard a snap? I stood up. I could put weight on my left leg just enough to walk. I headed back along the leaf-strewn path to the car and drove to the emergency room.
“Does this hurt?” the doctor asked, pressing in on my swollen left ankle.
“Not much.” It was painful, sure, but it wasn’t a scream-out-loud ache. “Maybe a four on a ten-point pain scale.”
“And this?” he kept asking while pressing down in a few more places, twisting the foot.
“Not a problem.” Nowhere did the pain seem extreme.
“You did some damage. Clearly. But it’s just strained ligaments, not a break.”
I liked what I was hearing. This fall would not deter me from climbing. If anything, it would send me back: I had taken a long tumble and came out of it with my limbs intact.
“Ice it for the next couple days. Then switch to a heat pad.”
I limped out of the emergency room, confident that I’d be back on rock in a week.
Over the next two days the swelling eased a touch; aspirin moderated the ache. Then, on day three, I switched to a heat pad.
In the first few seconds of applying heat, I felt a comfortable warmth, a friendly hand encircling my muscle and bone. I leaned back on the couch, letting the pad work its heat into my leg.
As the heat stimulated more blood flow, the hand began to squeeze, gripping tight, getting blazing hot. In the fraction of a second it took me to sit up, I experienced the most intense pain of my life. It felt like my leg was about to explode. I peeled off the pad and hurled it across the room.
Waiting in the emergency room for the second time in three days, the magazines were all familiar. So I just stared at the wall until the nurse called my name.
This time, the doctor took an X-ray. This had to be more than ligament damage.
As I sat staring at the walls, waiting for the results, I noticed a group of doctors at the door. One of them pointed at me and then whispered to the others. They saw me staring at them and knew I wanted an explanation. Finally, one of them spoke up.
“Are you Slakey?”
“Yes.” I was wondering what could possibly make me a spectacle.
“So, you’re the guy who’s been walking around on a broken leg for the last three days?”
The X-ray couldn’t have been clearer. It was a corkscrew break, twisting up and around my fibula. Evidently, it wasn’t my imagination; there really had been a snapping sound when I had hit the ground. And as I twisted and rolled, my left foot hadn’t responded fast enough. It stayed in place a bit too long, and my pivoting body had literally twisted the bone, cleaving it into two pieces.
“We should have taken an X-ray the first time. But you said it didn’t hurt. Why not?” the doctor asked, genuinely curious.
“A break doesn’t hurt as much as you think it would.” If I were back there today, I would still rate it a four on a ten-point scale.
“You came back just in time.” The doctor explained that the bone was trying to heal itself. To do that, the edges of the two pieces of the fibula had softened into putty. The soft edges were trying to reconnect and harden into place to repair the bone. The problem was that I had interfered with the process by walking around on the leg for three days. As a result, the bone edges would soften, get displaced by my walking, soften some more, get displaced again, and so on.
“In another day,” he said, handing me the X-ray slide, “the two pieces of the bone would have slid right past each other. Your leg would have collapsed to half its length.” I would have been walking along and the leg would suddenly crumple, like a collapsible telescope.
I would find out years later that the doctor had been overly dramatic that day. My brother, an orthopedic surgeon, explained it to me.
“No, your leg wouldn’t crumple, but I know why he said it.”
I couldn’t imagine why.
“You were walking around on a broken leg. You weren’t going to listen to reason. It was the only way he could think of to make you take it seriously.”
The doctor’s words had their desired effect. I never solo climbed again. To fortify that decision, for years after the fall, I reminded myself of that corkscrew break by using the X-ray as my computer mouse pad.
“That sucks,” Pax says for the second time of the climb, his gear strewn out on the ground around him.
We just topped out on El Cap a few minutes ago and I’m lacing up my boots. “What happened?”
“My boots, they’re missing.”
That’s rough news because he needs them for the descent. Climbing shoes have a tight fit, like a ballerina’s toe shoes. When you’re climbing, the tightness is ideal because it maximizes the sensitivity your toes can have to the rock. But on descent, when you are working your way down steep rocky trails, if you wore those climbing shoes then your feet would take a bloody beating. Instead, you wear boots.
Pax’s boots aren’t actually missing; we both know exactly where they are. Since they aren’t in the pile around his feet, they must be three thousand feet below us, having gone airborne when the cot fell out from under us.
As I look back on that moment I see several ways we could have handled the next six hours. I could have gone down, picked up an extra pair of boots from a friend at camp, and hiked them back up the trail for Pax to use. I didn’t do that; I’m embarrassed now to admit that it didn’t even occur to me. I could barely even manage to give him much sympathy.
“You’re right, that does suck,” was all I said.
And so, without complaint, Pax hiked down in his climbing shoes, the sharp rocks on the trail pressing up and through the thin rubber. As expected, the six hours on the trail left his feet beaten and worn. When we got back to the car, he pulled his climbing shoes off and it looked as though his feet had been whipped with a bamboo cane.
That night, back in camp, with Pax’s feet airing out in the cool breeze, we considered the next dilemma: the cot was sitting on the top of a two-hundred-foot-tall redwood tree.
“Pax, I’d like to help, pal, but I gotta get back home to work.”
“I totally understand.”
Again, I look back on that moment, years later, with embarrassment. I didn’t offer to help. I didn’t even offer to pay for a new cot.
“No problem, Slake, I’ll scale the tree and get it myself.”
I called Pax a few weeks later to find out what happened. Tom Paxton had probably become the only climber in the history of Yosemite to ever scale a redwood tree.
The cot was mangled, but he broke it down into parts, stuffed them into a box, and sent them back to the manufacturer with a note explaining what happened, redwood tree and all.
With a boxful of parts, the manufacturer would have no way of knowing whether Pax’s story of our climb was true. There was plenty of reason to reject his request for a refund. The likelihood of a cot breaking the way it did is infinitesimally small—one in a million. But they took him at his word.
1 in 1,000,000.
That astronomically small likelihood would govern a journey that would take more than a decade of my life to finish.
The journey would completely unravel me, then bind me back together into someone who could feel and care. I look back now and I don’t even recognize the callous nail-driving mallet that I was. By crisscrossing a world of mountains and oceans, I would eventually discover my humanity.
A Memoir of Going to Extremes
To the Last Breath
A Memoir of Going to Extremes
Before Georgetown physics professor Francis Slakey set out to climb the highest mountain on every continent and surf every ocean, he had shut himself off from other people. His lectures were mechanical; his relationships were little more than ways to fill the evenings. But as his journey veered dangerously off course, everything about him began to change.
A gripping adventure of the body and mind, To the Last Breath depicts the quest that leads Slakey around the globe, almost takes his life, challenges his fiercely held beliefs, and opens his heart. The scientist in Slakey explores the history of Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed Antarctica expedition, the technology of climbing, and the geophysics of waves. But it is the challenges he endures and the people he encounters—a Lama who gives him a mysterious amulet, a life-or-death choice atop Everest, an ambush at gunpoint in Indonesia, a head-on collision in the high desert—that culminate in a moving lesson about what it means to be human.
Francis Slakey on Fitness
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