ENCOUNTER WITH EL CAP (February 1969)
Larry Hamilton, May 2001
Writing in four voices, Royal Robbins composed an unforgettable account of his 1969 first ascent of Tis-sa-ack on Half Dome (Ascent 1970). Robbins' partner and antagonist on the final push was Don Peterson, "a young Coloradan, hot as a firecracker, hot as a bloody branding iron" (Robbins in AAJ 1970:7). Peterson burns with dark energy in Robbins' Tis-sa-ack stories. I read both articles avidly, as I did all Royal's work in those days. From a much humbler ascent, I had a Don Peterson story of my own.
On a February weekend in 1969, eight months before Tis-sa-ack was climbed, some college friends and I made the long drive from Santa Barbara to Yosemite with no particular plans. We arrived to find the Valley digging out from a winter storm. Climbing looked out of the question, as we set our tents atop deep snow in Camp 4. At first the campground seemed deserted, but one resident soon came to light. Don Peterson had been living comfortably in the dry and heated camp bathroom. He introduced himself as a graduate student, with a research grant to study "the ecology of large granite walls." He told stories about his attempts on El Cap, gripping adventures featuring climbers and pitches that were legendary to us. Our own climbing experiences had been rarely above 5.6, often in epic bad style, and never on big walls. We listened in awe. Then Don asked if we wanted to go climbing.
My friends stood back, but I jumped at his offer. In short order, Don and I were racking for the first few leads of The Nose ("My favorite stone," he said) on the theory that this was most snow-free route in the Valley. It might well have been. Don led off, nailing quickly up the initial long pitch. I tried to feign competence as I followed on belay (we had no Jumars), and was most of the way up when all hell broke loose. Although the climb itself was dry, we had failed to notice that the summit slopes 3,000 feet above us held tons of ice. Warmed by the sun, a huge section of ice split off loudly and began crashing down the face in an inescapable curtain, hundreds of yards wide. I later calculated that it must have taken at least 15 seconds for the falling ice to reach us. All that time we stared up at our doom, while staked to the shelterless wall. At the last second I looked down and covered my head. But the slab just above us was a few degrees less steep than where we were. Ice-refrigerators, ice-boxcars hit that slab and catapulted into space, to pass with a thrashing roar behind our backs as we cringed against the rock. This terror continued for what seemed a long time. Then it stopped. The sun was still shining, and we were unhurt.
"Do you want to go down?" Don asked me. Damn, I thought. If he doesn't then I won't either. I said no. Maybe Don thought likewise. Telling each other that all the ice had now fallen, we decided to continue with our climb. Don raced up the second pitch, and I began cleaning. I was halfway to his belay when it all happened again. With more cannonfire cracks from the summit, a new avalanche of ice blocks began its slow-motion descent. This time, we were on the slab that had taken impacts and protected us before. But there was a more important difference for me: I was near a small roof. I slammed a carabiner into a piton below the overhang, and swung across to cower under the only cover around. With ice thundering towards us, Don thought I had fallen and was now held only by his waist belay. "Get your weight off the rope!" he screamed. Hanging from the pin I yelled back, "I'm off, let it go!" But he could not hear me. I was safe from direct hits under the roof, though we both knew the rope might get cut to pieces. Don was in a worse position with no shelter at all, the avalanche above and an apparently fallen partner below. In an heroic effort he kept the belay rope clenched in one hand, while using the other to hold a pack over his head. Great chunks of ice smashed around him as smaller ones hit, batting him off his ledge to spin about on the anchors, still gripping the belay rope to me. Minutes later, the icefall had passed. It left Don bruised, and me shaken. For the second time in two hours, we'd been luckier than we deserved. There was no longer any question about wanting to go down. As fast as possible we rapped off, and ran out through the wreckage of ice blocks that now littered the wall's base.
I always thought myself careful. But in the ace/rookie roles that Don and I inhabited that day, we both acted stupider than either would have done alone. The episode became a wild story as I told it to my friends. Privately, I found its lesson disturbing. I had learned first-hand about the thoughtless ease with which we can sometimes bet our lives, and then too late see the irreversible mistake. That knowledge grew more haunting years later, as my son neared a similar age. He began seeking out his own adventures with the same untried self-assurance that he could sense trouble coming, and dodge it. Whether harrowing experiences resulted, he has not yet told me. Perhaps he was wiser. But if not, then I hope that thirty years from now, when the dangers are safely remote, he'll write some of them down for his children.
Newcomers in the Valley, February 1969
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