Last month I took a job rigging ropes for a video shoot in Yosemite. I took the job knowing nothing about the details of the shoot, other than I would be rigging for another video guy (unnamed at the time, ending up being Andrew Peterson). The video we were shooting for followed a Danish TV investigative reporter, Morten Spiegelhauer, along a year long journey into rock climbing, seeing how dealing with fear on the rock changed his decision making process in everyday life. Morten had come to Yosemite a year ago to start the journey with Hans Florine, who holds the speed record for climbing the Nose of El Capitan (31 pitches in 2 hours and 23 minutes). Through mental and physical training, Morten culminated the experience by leading several trad pitches on El Capitan. It was awesome seeing his cool headed approach to leading, with only 4 trad leads under his belt previously.
I flew into Salt Lake City at 1am, arriving late because a woman with a carry-on dog refused to make her dog sit under the seat in front of her. After taxiing to the runway, we had to return to the gate so she could be escorted off the plane, screaming profanities, and the other passengers clapped once she was gone.
Andrew met me outside the airport with his Diesel Jeep Liberty, having slept for 3 hours in preparation for our 12 hour all night haul to The Valley. We made it somewhere into Nevada, but even with switching off driving we had to stop and sleep. Google was telling me we’d arrive 3 hours before we had to be there, so I reasoned we could sleep for two hours. We pulled off onto some gravel country road and made a quick bivvy.
photo by Andrew Peterson
After a mandatory In-n-Out stop outside of Sacramento, we started the drive back east towards Yosemite. We knew we were in a hurry (unnecessarily so, we beat the rest of the crew), but we stopped to take photos.
This being both of our first times in Yosemite, driving in was pretty magical. There are 3,000 foot cliffs towering over you with waterfalls dumping huge amounts of water on every side. The sun filters through the thick trees as slowly drive the one way road. Around every corner you catch sight of the sites you’ve heard of before: Horestail Falls, Bridalveil falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls.
We met up with Hans Florine and the Danish crew in the meadow below El Capitan, discussing our plans for the shoot. Morten, the subject of the video, wanted a warmup climb to get used to the rock, so Hans took us to climb Pine Line (thin 5.7) and the first pitch of Salathe (5.10c, dual crack fingers!!). We had limited time, so I top roped Salathe, with Hans telling me I only had 8 minutes to climb the 120′ route. It was a fun exercise in speed crack climbing, with Hans yelling, “30 seconds!”, “10, 9, 8…”
We reconvened with the rest of the crew, who were scouting locations and doing timelapses, and jet off to Hans’s Basecamp. We ate well for the week, having grilled steaks and pork pretty much every night (except on the wall).
The next morning we do another warmup climb, with the full crew out taking video. I take Andrew up some variation of After Six so he can shoot down on Morten and Hans.
After we got down, Andrew and I went into full tourist mode. We drove around the loop, 1 mile, taking us an hour and half (mostly because of construction). We stopped at Yosemite Falls to get a closer look. There’s really not a great viewpoint of the falls that doesn’t include being sprayed with ice cold water and high winds, so we left the path and found some cool boulders.
Andrew wanted to get a timelapse of the last light on El Capitan and climbers’ headlamps from Tunnel View. I wandered off, following random trails on the side of the mountain over the Tunnel chasing the sun.
I never got to the point where I could see around the other side of the mountain, but looking back, I found these amazing wild flowers with the entire Yosemite Valley behind them. To get this photo, I was precariously perched on loose soil, holding onto a tree above a couple hundred foot cliff. I wished I had had my climbing equipment.
I made my way back to Tunnel View, where Andrew was still working on his timelapses. These guys were too cute not to get a photo of.
This was my first time in Yosemite. This was my first time on a big wall. The most pitches I’ve done in one push is eleven, I think. I’ve never ascended (climbed a rope fixed to anchors rather than climbing the rock) more than one pitch (100-ish feet) at a time. I typically do not have problems with heights or fear while climbing.
This time I was legitimately terrified, more so than I can remember in recent history. Climbing someone else’s old climbing rope they retired and donated as a fixed rope that has been hanging for an unknown amount of time in unknown weather conditions and is in an unknown state of health, attached to unknown anchors did not inspire confidence in me. I was attached with two Petzl ascenders that lock in one direction, which allows me to move up but will not slide down the rope unless I remove them from the rope. Both ends of the ropes were attached to anchors, but if for some reason the rope above me snapped, my ascenders would fly off the loose end instead of allowing me to stay attached to the anchor below. All of this is pretty irrational fear as these ropes are used quite often by climbers descending from Freeblast or by Jimmy Chin and other filmmakers to get to different vantage points.
Also, adding to my fear was the 50lb haul bag riding below my feet. Every step that I took into my stirrup attached to my ascender pulling on the frayed rope, I was adding 50 more pounds. I think if it had just been my weight, the fear would have been a lot less.
Every time I attached myself to an anchor, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. Every time I had pulled out all the stretch in the old dynamic ropes and I had to transfer all of my hopes and dreams onto that rope, I had to overpower my fear…”F*$& F*$& F*$& F*$&”…”Guh, just go, the only way out of this is up!”. Six pitches up, I reach the Heart Ledge, and I finally am able to breathe normal again. There was a fixed line on the 5.10 up to the Mammoth Terraces, which I was happy I wouldn’t have to lead on the one static line we brought up.
After a final struggle to get my haul bag unstuck in the corner roof of the 5.10 I made it to the Mammoth Terraces and traverse the wide ledge to the anchors above Pitch 10 of Freeblast. Hans, Eric (Han’s employee), and Morten are just starting into pitch 6. I quickly rigged our static line to the anchor so Andrew could rappel down and shoot them on the exposed face before they were hidden by the Ear of Pitch 8 (or Half-Dollar). Andrew rappelled down to pitch 9, to shoot Hans coming over the edge of the “Half Dollar”.
While Andrew was shooting them below where I could have a decent shot from the top, I took the opportunity to change. But I couldn’t resist getting naked and taking photos from ~ halfway up El Capitan.
Morten led the final pitch, and I captured video of him topping out. Andrew and I continued shooting video with the little remaining light before setting up our bivvies on the ledges. I took some opportunity to take photos in the fading light.
While on the ledges, we tried to stay connected to the rope via ferrata setup by Hans from the bolts on Mammoth Terraces. While sleeping, I remained attached to the via ferrata and clipped my sleeping bag to the fixed line to Heart Ledge, since it was conveniently located. I did not consider that someone might be climbing up from Heart Ledge early in the morning. I woke up to my sleeping bag getting tugged towards the ledge and a very sweaty Jimmy Chin, National Geographic photographer and film maker, popped up onto the ledge. “Oh, hey Jimmy,” I said super casually. “Go back to sleep! Go back to sleep,” he said as he stepped over me. It was like a weird Santa Claus moment.
We saw Alex Honnold climbing up pitch 6 on Freeblast (Freerider), and figured Jimmy was filming him on some unknown project. Little did we know that Alex was training for his now famous free solo a week and half later.
Andrew really wanted to get his timelapse from Tunnel view and was electing to stay up all night working on it. I went with him, getting a few shots I really wanted.
Yosemite was amazing! I definitely want to go back and climb more, though I haven’t made up my mind whether I want to do big walls or not. There is tons of climbing away from the crowds to be done. We had bluebird weather all week, which is amazing for climbing, but not ideal for photography. I wished that we’d had a bit of inclimate weather to give the valley a bit more drama.
Till next time…