Being and Nothingness in the Gully
By Peter Haan
Being and Nothingness in the Gully
Well before climbing gyms made it possible to stay inside and work on our art, we had actual seasons, and these were always outdoors surprisingly. I mean both the weather and the sports periods. Yes that’s right, always outside. So come early March, depending on how the Valley weather patterns were posturing and how much of a snowpack was still hovering above, many of us knew it was time to get back in the trench. As Terray’s Conquistadores of The Useless---and there was plenty of that Uselessness back then---we found that at the start of each season the little paper plates of our lives were really loaded down again.
It was daunting having to face off with The Useless once again and for yet another year when the granite got dry and warm enough to talk to it. Handling The Useless was pretty heady stuff; it was a dangerous isotope, a form of Nothingness which in the end has always been fatal; it tends to annihilate, you see.
One such early season Vandiver and I were cantering like wild horses up the Column Direct and North Dome South face routes unroped on a kind of iffy afternoon. The sky was changing color; later on we could see a cloud bank approaching when we got above the rim of the Valley on the Dome. The climbing was going quite well; this particular time we were not caught behind anyone as we would be the following year when Al Steck and Dick Long wouldn’t let us solo through their roped party while they struggled to extract Dick’s or Wilson’s old-fashioned mountain boot stuck in the lieback up high. They were hammering on it, tugging, bitching and so on for an hour.
But this time the problem was---and it was a frequent problem for Vandiver and I--- we just couldn’t get started early enough because there was so much heavy lifting at the cafeteria that had come up, so many cups of coffee that had to get taken, all the beta, the data, the errata, the triviata to get pinned down before tying in, that to get going was actually pretty much secondary, frankly after-the-fact. Important times these. We apparently were in that nebulous fractious period between The Golden Age of American Rockclimbing and The Brave New World of American Rockclimbing and felt nameless. There was kind of a friskiness about many of us; we had no burdensome “Era” in which we were supposed to figure out the next logical step as we piggybacked the whole era thing around for a decade.
We may now refer to this interregnum as The Mop-Up of American Rockclimbing, after Royal’s frequent dictum that after the late 1960’s we had reached the end of any future rock climbing such as had been when he was at the helm: “It’s all a mopping up operation now” he liked to say back then, wine glass in hand. Leaving me with with what, I pondered. So knowing not the name of our very own period or that we even had our own period, we were desperate to make our marks in the fog whatever it might end up being named---if in fact we would ever get our own name--- off we would often go so as not to actually usher in the cafeteria’s lunch crowd, still appearing in good form to only have breakfasted, albeit exiting by 11:30 at such point.
As usual we had absolutely no use for water, food or extra clothing as we swirled our way up the 18 pitches of the combined climbs. Such things weren’t the point at all, actually and it was always important to stay on topic. We might not even have owned “extra clothing”. The plan was always to bag the day’s work in about 2-3 hours and get back to the cafeteria of course where the real people were and the issues of our time pondered and then tabled for the next morning. From the outside, we must have looked like mere decorative koi or perhaps slowmoving features in someone’s terrarium; the euros had no trouble stealing our pet turtles many times for years to come. I guess in a way, we were euro-placeholders actually; we were safeguarding first ascents so the more talented euros could have them.
Except this time----realize this was one of many identical ascents we made of the two routes---we were coming down the longest way possible, around the western side of the North Dome, for some reason----maybe snow--- and arrived at the beginning of North Dome Gully in the dark. And dark it really became because by this point the clouds had really piled up, rain was threatening, the temperature had dropped about 25 degrees in two hours.
Exhausted of course from all the needless extra work, the early-season climbing, the grinding trail-finding, and constantly tedious hiking in the upper stretches of the gully and rim, our barely post-teenage patience was really running out. We could hardly see anything at all with the cloud cover and the only equipment we had was turtlenecks, pants and shoes. No lights. Frankly we were dressed like the city boys we ridiculed but in fact were.
We began to make the terrible error of attempting to descend way too early, imagining the immense east face of the Column below us had already been passed in a couple of minutes and we were magically ready to descend the talus, scree and pedestals that take you home, that latter section of course only taking a few minutes as well.
Wishing for it does not make it any more real however. Even some children know this. I think we might have been flirting with the concept that our magical thinking actually was sound and clever legerdemain and not illusion at all. Stroke-of-genius stuff you see.
As many say, climbing accidents seem most often to occur on easy ground and at the end of the day or climb. A certain amount of magical thinking, self-delusion really, usually is involved and that state of mind is why we lose people or they get injured. It’s the thinking that is killing people.
So there we were dead beat, blinded by the dark, awfully young as well 21 and 19, waddling around off route in the redoubtable North Dome Gully descent with some fantasies working about how we are only a short bit from the Valley floor, not maybe the two or more hours it would take with these conditions. And a storm that clearly is going to let loose very soon.
At one point, I started to check out what seems another little drop I am supposed to make off a boulder stuck in the slope and in what we think is still the climbers’ trail, jumping onto what I believe is a nice puffy pile of scree 5 feet below it and then walking onwards. Thinking that I am supposed to third-class just right here. I had already done a couple such maneuvers in the last few minutes and that’s what they were, nice soft landings, and what seemed to be the trail to home as we unknowingly edged more and more away from the actual route down, closer and closer to titanic cliffs.
Launching once again, I hit the scree but in the dark it turns out that it’s scree alright, but on a steep slab---they’re ball bearings. As I rocket down a slabby chute which I can kind of see, albeit from every point of the 360 degrees of each of my x and y-axis rotations, the scree really helping to get the show on the road, I feel incredible relief for the end of all effort. A state that neatly frogleaps all more lengthy wasteful attempts at Nirvana.
How novel, I am glissading down a granite chute, how fun. Take 8 hours to climb the mountain, playfully glissade down it in 5 minutes, sort of thinking we all knew well but generally associated with snow. Fabulous, too, a kind of a 4-star rolfing effect, just what I needed after a hard day climbing. Or perhaps more like a session under the bare feet of a very pissed-off aging racist Geisha girl. Such pleasure!
As the nanoseconds and particles flew by and I awoke to the reality that such a chute could only be located above the last part of the huge East Face, meaning a gigantic dropoff onto talus was coming up any second on this bus route, I spread myself out as rigidly as I could and started digging my limbs into the many-petaled surfaces down which I was so inventively stone-glissading. The flips and cartwheels ended and I seemed to be getting somewhere stopping going somewhere I knew not where. So to speak. The absolute release and pleasure of a complete and total letting go somehow got wastefully trashed in an effort to stop cartwheeling and jumping down the formation that hated me and would vomit me out onto a talus field somewhere hundreds of feet below.
So lucky me, I did come to a stop, still on the slabs which had lessened in angle. Not quite concussed, but truly stunned to say the least, I didn’t move partly because to have stopped hiking and climbing for the first time in many hours was one of life’s sweetest moments and partly because I could barely think and was in quite a lot of pain. Scrapes all over, some real cuts, and a hip joint that must have been seriously injured and which took months to recover from. That was the inventory as regular-guy thinking pulled up to the bar rail of my crazed midnight tavern bar fight.
Vandiver was screaming my name 75 feet above me. It was annoying, why can’t he mellow out? What is his problem? It would be great if I could just sleep here now I thought. So for the first three screams I couldn’t be bothered dealing with that noise that was above me. Given a fourth scream, and by this point once again part of the human race unfortunately, I answered and gave him the details, proud that I was not maimed for life, maybe. And shocked and honored by the horror and anguish in his voice.
He carefully worked his way down the chute on his hind legs and reached me in a few minutes. His concern abruptly scaled down from terror to the regular complacency we all entertain towards each other when totally disfigured by fatigue and hunger. But for a few moments he had thought that I had disappeared over what we now could see was a hideous dropoff maybe five feet further from my final stopping point. The racket I had made playing in the chute---realize this was decades before Bandaloop Dancers----had ended suddenly suggesting to him maybe I had then gone flying.
Appropriately, the storm began just about then. It rained and then it tried to snow but we seemed to be just about at the snowline so instead of fluffy crystals it was most often frigid drops that grew more and more constant. By this point our eyes had grown able to use the scant light filtering through the clouds. We found a few feet away a large boulder with a tiny overhanging part on its downside under which we spent the evening, perching and intwined on a bare dirt hummock. Livesey’s Japanese Film-makers’ Grass was nowhere in site.
For some ridiculous and wildly mislead reason I had some matches. Never mind that they were maybe 20 years old, untested and taken from an old house I had bought in Santa Cruz; they did work and so we completely denuded a sad little tree next to us as night wore on, developing several generations of unique and artful fires to keep from dying in the freezing exposure. When dawn came we could see Half Dome across from us and the snow line evilly level to us, varying up and down a bit just to drive the point home that we were idiots. It took a few painful hours getting back to the actual descent path and down to the Valley and our coffee at the cafeteria. These March rains had tapered for a few hours but hung around still for a few more days allowing us to get back to the real Matters of State at the Lodge.