"Of Rain and Rainbows"
7/5/01 Karl Lew
Wawona echoes with happy greetings as Karl Baba welcomes me to his gentle abode in Southern Yosemite. The wind chimes and incense mark the beginnings of an intense yet peaceful climbing vacation. I set down my pack, close my eyes and take in the feeling, the scents, the aura of Yosemite. Home again.
Waiting till I return to the world, Karlee quietly remarks...
"Karluu, I have bad news."
"Thunderstorms are forecast for Tuolomne. I think Fairview is out of the question."
"It will probably rain and thunderstorm through Saturday."
I sit down, mind numb with shattered expectations. I had been gifted with four days alone to do with as I chose, family gone to visit the in-laws, my bad back saving me from a grueling plane ride to the East coast. And in those four days I had hoped, no, planned to lead the Regular Route on Fairview. All of it. And now...nothing.
The river burbles by as Karlee lets me sit and come to grips. Some time later, I struggle back to my senses.
"OK. Now what?", I utter with hopeless skepticism.
"Well, there's Stoner's Highway, 5.10c."
From the depths of memory floats a memory of Mike Arechiga muttering about Stoner's Highway. Mike, who was my first climbing teacher, had once remarked that Stoner's on Middle Cathedral was one of the scarier routes he'd done. Run out, impossible route finding, you name it. My reaction to Mike's off-hand comments had been to promptly file the route under the heading, "Routes never to do". And now here I was, looking straight at Karlee Baba, the reverend of peace, who, in all innocence to my inner angst, was now proposing the route of final madness.
"Uh, Karlee? I can't lead 5.10b. I fell off Church Bowl Tree P2 on follow."
"Oh, sorry. I'll lead, but I think you'll enjoy the route, and if you want to lead, there's always the 5.7 P1 variation." said Karlee, somewhat embarrassed at the misunderstanding.
I crawl off to my car, to snatch some solace between nightmares of the day to come.
As predicted, Thursday dawns with high country storm clouds, but we sneak into the Valley and arrive at the base of Stoner's with no one around. Middle Cathedral is ours. It's ferociously hot. Out comes the sunblock.
In the shade of the corner, I happily climb the 5.7 pitch to the anchors. Karlee, following quickly, kindly refrains from asking me why I racked up with his cams if I wasn't going to use them. I'm always afraid of running out of cams, so I use nuts. I never use the cams. Silly me.
I look up. And blink. And blink again.
Above me stretches the vast expanse of Middle Cathedral, blank and smooth, hot and impossible. Nothing. There is no route. Karlee is mad. And oblivious.
I look up again and see the ripples. Like the heated air floating off an abandoned, sun-baked desert highway, the granite undulates in a vast mirage of tantalizing insubstantiality. Desperately impossible. It is indeed, the Stoner's Highway.
Karlee proceeds up the second pitch, totally in his element, taking his time, being with the day. Yesterday he had remarked, "Stoner's is cerebral. A mental challenge with delicate, non-obvious moves." That one remark had suckered me in to doing this climb and here I was, watching the master at work. Stoner's, climbable in deed.
(Karlee note: Karluu's trip report should have a disclaimer that he is far too humble. He climbed well on the route, struggling only with a few cruxes requiring an unfamiliar type of climbing. Since we have climbed together before, I knew that Stoner's would be a good test of his abilities, and it had the added advantage of quick retreat if the weather soured, a nice breeze higher up, and some afternoon shade.)
And so, with hope born of trust and the evidence of my eyes, I follow. But for me, the mirage has returned, rippling in front, all around, insubstantial and vaporous. I might as well try walking on air. There are no holds.
Calves burning, palms sweating, eyes squinting, I battle my way to an oasis of solidity. A crack. I hug it. Cracks are beautiful. So substantial. So tangible. So protectable. A hand rail shooting to the belay.
Karlee motors on and up, a man in his element, out for a stroll. For me the desert is unrelenting. It strips away any pretense I may have about ever leading this route. Even following is coming into question. The ripples dance in the sun. I do not.
I am reduced finally to a kernel of existence where survival becomes paramount. Pride in tatters, I pendulum right and left to holds that I can actually see. The day wears on.
Six hours later, I arrive, gasping, at the P6 anchors. Camelbak sucked dry. Energy bars wolfed down long ago. Heels blistered. Soul shredded.
"Enough! I surrender! Let us rap," I submit in total defeat.
"But don't you want to lead the 5.8 pitch?"
"With what? I can't move!"
Frowning like a doting parent at a child needing encouragement, Karlee tut tuts and cheerfully points at the approaching rain clouds.
"See, Karluu, we must nevertheless rap on account of rain!"
...and so we do...
The rain sweeps into the Valley, patting down the dust, bringing a blessed coolness to the parched July desert that Yosemite can become. Tired and happy, Karlee and Karluu motor out of the Valley, winding their way back to Wawona.
"Karluu, stop the car!"
The car screeches to a halt and Karlee bounds out. We are at Inspiration Point and Karlee has just looked back down into the Valley to see the most amazing sight.
There is a rainbow over Half Dome. The next hour flies by as we take in the view, giddy tourists click happy on their digicams. A sight like this happens once in a lifetime, if that. The light shifts and suddenly we see the shadow of El Cap on the rainbow, cutting across the mists, with Half Dome etched in sun behind.
Ansel Adams all, we stand struck mute with awe.
Rainbow Sunset Shots
Friday dawns with rain. Climbing itself has come into question. We had planned to take on Sacherer Cracker at my hopeful suggestion, but those plans are not to be.
With a wicked gleam in his eye, Karlee turns to me and non-chalantly suggests,
"How 'bout learning to aid climb?"
Karlee, my tormentor, knows me much too well. Aid climbing it is.
We set up camp for the day under an overhanging wall. A thin corner crack arches up to the anchors. Truly foreboding. This ain't no gym crack, sweetie.
Out comes the aid gear. A vast metal cornucopia spills out of Karlee's pack. I had been carrying the ropes and was puzzled about what on earth Karlee was carrying in his fully stuffed pack. Aid gear. Tons of it.
"This is an adjustable daisy. These are aiders. Up you go, Karluu."
Conversations with Karlee are disconcerting. Karlee believes in learning by doing. For real. My last aid class had been from Walt Shipley, who, constrained as a YMS guide, had set up a top rope and explained the rudiments of the aid craft to me practicing on toprope. Now Karlee was handing me an aider. No top rope. Go aid. For real.
"Uh, ya. OK."
(Karlee: I wouldn't let just anyone lead an aid pitch right off the bat, Karluu is an experienced trad leader and I knew after a short demonstration, that he could safely suffer up this particular challenge safely. Again, He's too modest)
Ever watchful, he talks me up the pitch. Here he explains that cams are the norm for aiding, since they clean easier--my beloved nuts stay racked. There he explains about testing each piece. I test--rock crumbles into my face. The cam holds. I test--more rock crumbles. The piece pops out. Oh. My Biners shift. Click. CLACK. Thunk. Aiders tangle with daisy chains. In fact, everything seems to be tangled in with just about everything else all at the same time. I am an ascending Gordian knot. I am totally engrossed.
Finally, some elements start to click and a rhythm emerges. Triumphant, I arrive at the belay. "Woohoo!". Karluu does A1. I look at my watch. Three hours have flown by for a 75' pitch. Unbelievable. Three hours. At this rate, climbing El Cap will take a year.
"Fix and rap the trail line."
"Do the what with the what?"
"Fix and rap the trail line."
On the ground again, I look up. I have indeed completed my first aid-climb. I turn to Karlee, who has been waiting patiently. He holds out a piece of metal.
"This, Karluu, is a jumar. Up you go."
"Huh? Can't I just use prusiks?"
"This, Karluu, is a jumar. Up you go. 'Ware the traverse."
I struggle. I flail. But, indeed, up I do go. Success!
"Karluu, you have to be able to ascend 150' in 5 minutes."
More practice is called for. Lots of it. But finally, after one more hour of toil, my first aid climb is done, cleaned and I am back on the ground.
Karlee looks at me and smiles.
I dread it when Karlee smiles.
"Karluu, now you climb this 5.10d pitch free."
I blink. There's really not much else you can do with such a pronouncement.
Fifteen minutes later, I am at the anchor, gasping and wheezing...but successful. Wow.
Driving home alone into another gorgeous sunset drenched in color, I turn off the radio and think on the wonder of the past two days. I think about meeting Jim Bridwell at the base of Stoner's (Jim and Karlee argued about where the route was--I was certainly no help.) I think about actually meeting Chongo (yes, he does exist--I gave him my french fries.) So tired I can barely move, I reflect on the seductive challenge of near success.
And I realize, I will be back!
"Karleeeeee! Stoner's in 2002!"
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