The Great Escape: Part Two

Sam Anderson

In late spring, 2015, I was leading a route at Texas’ Enchanted Rock State Natural Area called Bush Crack (5.8). The line is as flattering as its name suggests: twenty-two feet of unremarkable finger locks on a cheese-grater granite boulder. The crack starts in a small cave that cradles a modest bush. I was thrutching, sweating, hauling too much gear, and afraid. I pulled myself over the top of the boulder, “built an anchor,” insofar as I was capable, and lowered. Kim, my mentor, and belayer, gave me a high five, top-roped up to clean the gear, and gave my anchor a C+.

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The author on "Bush Crack," 5.8, Enchanted Rock, Texas.

Kim was a trad climber with half a decade of experience when she asked me to go climbing with her in Yosemite. I had been contentedly climbing short sport routes in central Texas for a little over a year. I was preening my feathers with the assurance that comes easily to the ignorant.

Three weeks after I led Bush Crack, Kim and I found ourselves trapped in the middle of the 1000-foot Regular Route of Fairview Dome (5.9 difficulty rating, Grade III commitment rating, or most of a day of roped climbing) in California’s Tuolumne Meadows. I had never attempted a route nearly as difficult or dangerous as the Regular Route before. As we tried desperately to descend through a surprise afternoon thunderstorm, I didn’t know if I would live long enough to try anything like it again.

undefinedThe author belaying on "The Grack," 5.9R, Yosemite Valley, one day before climbing the "Regular Route" of Fairview Dome. Photo: Kim Grabosky Chalfant. 

After topping out a few mid-length routes (Grade II, or a half-day time commitment), Kim and I decided to take on the Regular Route. Hand cracks dominate the first 500 feet; the last five hundred is easier scrambling on slabby terrain. We went to bed early the night before and launched right on time.

undefinedGear and dinner, the evening before the team attempts the "Regular Route" of Fairview Dome. Photo: Kim Grabosky Chalfant.

We ran into trouble immediately. Leading the first pitch, I missed the first belay ledge and instead got stuck in a hanging belay in the middle of pitch two. Kim followed with our backpack and arrived at the anchor exhausted. I soon found out the pack was absurdly heavy. Kim could climb 5.9, but carrying an extra thirty pounds on her back turned the task into hard labor. Details like this can seem minor, but a few of them can combine to produce a dangerous situation on a committing climb.

I led the next pitch up to another out-of-sequence hanging belay. The stance was murder on my lower back and feet, thanks to my elementary rigging skills. I painfully manned it for an hour while Kim struggled up again with the heavy pack.

Kim led to the “Crescent Ledge” in the middle of the dome. We were halfway up and hammered out, but the ledge signaled the beginning of the more straightforward terrain. Kim got ready to launch into the next block of leads, but looked behind us and froze. I did the same. A wall of black clouds raced toward us across the western foothills.

We deliberated, heatedly. There is no standard rappel for the Regular Route—most climb it as a single push, and descend a walk-off from the Fairview summit. In my opinion, we should continue as fast as we could to the summit. Knowing nothing of the behavior of lightning in the mountains, I figured we would get wet either way, and the unknown rappel below made me cringe. Kim insisted on rappelling. I deferred to her judgment and experience, but I seriously doubted that we would reach the ground. I had no idea what would happen if we did not. We reinforced a ring on a sling that we found lassoed around a boulder the size of a Volkswagen, threaded it, and I started rappelling into absolutely nothing.

undefinedThe "Regular Route" team at the top of "The Grack" in Yosemite Valley. Half Dome is visible at the top right of the frame.

The Regular Route wanders 75+ feet to the right on the Fairview face, and the boulder on Crescent Ledge was even farther right. As a result, I was not rappelling the route; I eased my way queasily down a featureless blue slab. With no end in sight, I started swinging left, hoping to find anywhere to place a directional piece as the wind picked up.

I had never done anything remotely similar to this exposed rappel before. The exposure horrified me, and my exhaustion made me impatient. Working hesitantly, I made it back to the Regular Route. I hit the familiar location of my last, painful hanging belay at the end of the ropes. I stared at the little alcove and let the despair do the work—all I could do was rebuild the anchor here and wait for Kim to show up.

undefinedThe "Regular Route" team at the top of "The Grack" in Yosemite Valley. Half Dome is visible at the top right of the frame.

I tugged the ropes, signaling her to rappel. Two minutes went by. I pulled them again, harder this time. Two more minutes went by. I started yarding on them viciously, with enough force that I naively thought I could snap them. I yelled, then I screamed, then I panted. Then I shouted some more. I was desperate. Minutes passed and turned into an hour. Where was my partner? What had happened to her? Why wouldn’t she respond to my signals?

I was furious, and when I ran out of energy to be mad, I got scared. Maybe Kim was in danger or somehow disabled. Perhaps she was dead. I had no plan and was on the verge of tears, screaming for her, when she appeared over the slab. My heart gushed with relief and gratitude nearing religious surrender.

“Hey, where ya at?” She asked from above.

“Guess,” I said.

We laughed. Maybe everything was going to be ok. At the belay, Kim told me we had lost communication due to weather conditions at Crescent Ledge—the wind had ripped my screams away into the valley. She had not heard a single one. Kim clipped into the anchor and prepared to pull the ropes down to us. We hauled on the lines, and they didn’t move. We pulled harder, and they still didn’t budge. We pulled as hard as we could. The cords were pinned.

Once again, I had no experience to add perspective to the situation. As far as I knew, it was the end. We were at the end of the ropes, and they were stuck. “This is it,” I thought—we either got rescued, or we died.

Kim pointed out that the ropes were under a lot of tension as well as friction, drawn tight across the slab above. Together, we hung off one end and pulled down with our bodyweight combined. The rope budged.

Shortly, we were on the ground. The ropes had snagged one more time on the way down, but the situation had proven escapable.

It took both of us a long time to process the events of that day. Looking back, I had become blinded by what I assumed would be the glory of summiting the Regular Route. Ignoring my lack of experience could have killed either Kim, me, or both of us. Due to my ignorance, I had no backup plan for the Regular Route. Kim was my only safety.

undefinedTeam self-portrait after descending the "Regular Route" of Fairview Dome.

From where I sit today, I would tell myself, “take it slow.” There are 501 routes in Tuolumne Meadows. We could have chosen to climb any of them that day, and many would most likely not have endangered our lives. Enjoying the process is never about reaching the goal—the goal is the end point of the process.

I was, and am, undergoing a seismic life change. Hopefully, because you are reading this article, so are you. Why get hung up on arriving at the endpoint? If you want the life you are trying to give yourself, you should take the time to enjoy doing whatever it takes to give it to yourself. On Fairview Dome in 2015, my outsized expectations could have killed me. It would be very, very hard to keep working toward living life on my terms if they had.