by: Artem Babaian (AB) & Andrew G. Chapman (AGC)
AB: “Because it is there.” I’ve long viewed climbing as a solitary pursuit. I climb to test my constitution, and because I can. Last winter I trained countless exhausting hours at gyms while maintaining a strict no-carb diet. The dream of summer peaks motivated me; I’d surpassed my previous limits. When a professor suggested I attend an upcoming research conference in California, my thoughts raced upwards:
I'm looking to go to this conference in Berkeley. Maybe we meet up and fuck off climb a bit if I'm down there? Looks like it's in-season for Yosemite =D”
"Oh hell ya! Berkeley is super close. That would definitely be a great time for Yosemite. Let's make this happen!"
AB: Andy and I met in grad-school, at the Epigenetics Journal Club, but a chance encounter on the street brought us bouldering together 3x/week for a couple years. His easy-going East-coast nature led to many half-baked adventures over those years. For example, after teaching myself the ‘theory’ of leading multi-pitch, and teaching Andy to lead belay in my apartment from a chair ‘anchor’, we decided it was a good idea to climb “Upper Black Dyke” on the Chief. Ignorant of what we’re getting into, the four pitch moderate turned into a five hour epic. While the climbing was within our physical abilities, the exposure was unreal. Through uneasy laughs and encouragement, we pulled through. Summiting the Chief, we trusted and understood each other deeply, the trauma solidifying our friendship.
Time marches on. After a few years (and shenanigans) Andrew graduated and took a year off to cycle across South America. Little did I know how much his life would change on that trip. On the road he met an audacious American gal, Erica. Upon returning, we all saw that Andy had changed, his life became irreversibly intertwined with her, and so he moved to California to see about a girl. Life is too short for half-measures after all.
A sad aspect of having friends with a passion for adventure and exploration is that this character trait encourages migration, and those friends are often lost to geography. Fast forward a couple of years and I hatched a plan to steal Andy back (at least temporarily).
AB: Early June at Berkeley, I forced my focus on the RNA conference as my subconscious dreamt of Yosemite. Finally, meeting Andrew, we embraced and were ecstatic for the week ahead. We drove into the sunset and ninja-camped outside the park.
Arriving at 7 AM, the scale of Yosemite was surreal. Next time you drive past the Chief, take the Grandwall, and mentally copy/paste it to 3x its height and that is almost the height of El Capitan. There are over half a dozen comparable walls in each direction.
We pulled into Camp 4 for a spot, it’s first-come first-served. Everyone is limited to 7 days in Yosemite during the summer season, so every day people vie for the spots that are freshly vacated. By chance, we arrived on a Monday with a high turnover, so we got in line at 8 AM and by 10 AM we had secured our 7-day home.
Mid-day was approaching 30′C, way too hot to climb, so we devised a strategy. We’d tackle climbs in the morning (5 AM – 9 AM) and evening (4PM – 8 PM). This way we can bask in the midday heat and get in two climbs per day. That evening we walked 20 minutes from camp for an easy warm-up. We got on a rambling 5.6 multi-pitch called “Munginella.” Yosemite is notorious for shutting people down, so we figured it is best to start slow.
I led everything that first day and I could see that Andy was keeping up, but not at the pace we used to climb. We had both known about this trip for 4 months, but Andy had an intense flare-up of Crohn’s disease, which took a heavy physical toll. The cross-continent cardio machine I knew had sand in the gears. I saw he wasn’t happy with his performance, but it took one pitch for everything to be put into perspective: we were climbing in Yosemite, why play number games when we can climb? We topped out to a private viewing platform of Yosemite Falls (739 m), with the iconic Half Dome at our backs and pride in our chests.
AGC: That night, we kept warm by the campfire and, being extra cautious, shared a beer. Artem rifled through the guidebook and picked out some climbs we could try. I feigned caring about what we climbed but I was just grateful to be there. I was feeling moderately healthy and enjoying spending time with my old friend.
The next morning, we set out on an easy climb I picked to get me back into leading. Afterwards, as the afternoon sun lost its heat, we headed to the toughest climbing we dared so far: a 5.7 route called “After Six.” Artem was climbing great and we were working out the cobwebs that grew since the last time we had climbed together.
After two “on” days, we took our first “rest day”, we decided to do a popular day-hike to Vernal and Nevada Falls. As we worked our way through groves of Ponderosa Pine, we had dedicated time to catch up. We chatted about books, genetics and the directions our lives are taking, making up for the lost years we didn’t spend chatting at some trendy Vancouver bar.
AB: The following morning we polished off a nice slab climb in the warm morning rays. That evening we hiked to the base of El Capitan, touching the fabled rock at the base of The Nose and The Dawn Wall. We were jazzed to be there, the kind of jazzed where you knowingly make mistakes. Looking for a shorter 5.8 by The Nose, I saw a line which looked right, but was maybe a bit long for 20m, and there were two cracks not one. It was aesthetic, and I thought, “why not?”
The first 20m was easy enough but there was no anchor, instead an outstanding twin set of finger cracks shot up. Looking out over the valley, I recalled a definition for adventure as “when you are uncertain of what the outcome will be,” and I was up for some adventure. I chalked up and fired off. Just as my tips were slipping out of one crack, a big crank into a bomber pocket in the other crack would give me hope. I fought this way, bouncing back and forth, until my forearms were on fire. I knew Andy would have a hell of a time doing this, but I also love to sandbag him. I smiled through the discomfort and pushed for the send. At reaching to the top, I was way past the 35m mid-mark of my rope (shit!). “That’s about a 5.8″, I lied, “you can totally do it!” (he could… maybe). It took a bit of fighting but eventually Andy made it up to smiles and high-fives.
Now at the anchor, we had to rap 50 m with a 70 m rope. There was another anchor ~30 m from the ground, but it was 10 m horizontal from of us. Andy single-lined to the ground and then I tried (and failed) to king-swing to the lower anchor. After a gallant effort sprinting back and forth across the wall, Andy was about to fetch the second rope from the car, when a slackjaw passerby asked if we knew what we’re doing. We laughed, “Only sort-of” and he offered to send up his rope in exchange for setting-up a top-rope for him and his son. Turned out we had climbed the first pitch of “Freeblast”, the start of the classic “Freerider”. After a bit more faff, I managed to get myself down and we smiled at the silliness and climbed more into the sunset.
AGC: We decided for a proper rest day the following day. We drove to Glacier Point, a popular and stunning viewpoint. On the drive we picked-up two hitchhikers, an older couple with large backpacks who were heading up on their first backpacking trip. Their awe of our modest climbs gave us perspective of how lucky we were to be there, and we were genuinely stoked for their adventure.
On the way back, we stopped for our usual dirtbag meal supplies, but instead were seduced by the aroma of the pizza around the corner. The climbing had brought back the appetite that the Crohn’s had recently taken away and we shared 16 slices. For such a little guy Artem motored through his half and then heckled me as I laboured through my final two slices. (AB: For the record, I had to eat 9 slices that day since Andy wouldn’t man up and eat his last one.) The rest of the day we sat with other climbers at our campsite and listened to their bigwall epics.
The biggest wall that we would tackle on the trip was planned for the next day. The Higher Cathedral Spire, a 400 ft tower rated 5.9, was going to be the apex of our courage in Yosemite. To give us the freedom to be slow we wanted to be the first on the route. When the 4 AM alarm went off, I secretly hoped Artem had slept through it so I could shamelessly relieve the butterflies I felt. I wouldn’t be so lucky; Artem soon stirred and we emerged to a cold morning.
Crossing the street from the parking lot on our way to the approach we came across another headlamp.
“Are you guys heading to or coming from the wilderness” a man said with a french accent.
“We’re climbing higher cathedral spire” Artem replied, and I added that we wanted to beat any crowds.
He laughed, “Well, you’ll definitely be the first up there”. He seemed to imply that we were taking ourselves a little too seriously to be up so early for that route, but I didn’t care. Being out pre-dawn with Artem made it feel like El Capitan.
The approach led us up a steep gully. It was physically taxing and convoluted in the dark, but by the time we could turn off our headlamps we had arrived at the base of the spire. The rising sun was casting an intimidating shadow of the entire feature onto nearby cathedral rock. We geared up, took a selfie pointing to the shadow’s sharp summit and were off. I was becoming more excited than nervous. Artem has a subtle look that I’ve learned to recognize, a slight smile as he chalks up, that says “we got this”.
AB: We were in a definitive adventure. I had the same fear I had years ago at The Upper Black Dyke, why do I keep dragging my poor friend into this? I knew what I had to do though, I smiled at Andy, I wouldn’t want anyone else in the world there with me then, and I chalked up.
A pitch in I relaxed and settled into the movement. I sailed through each pitch, the crux on the third pitch was a muscley bulge, jutting out from the spire such that it feels like the ground falls away. It was a tricky move and required high feet for a far reach to hit a fist pocket. I had a slight concern for Andy, but yelled down that he was “On Belay.”
AGC: Cruising through the third pitch I came to an abrupt halt at a corner crack with an overhang at the top. It looked tough, but knowing that I consistently paid out slack to Artem he obviously had no trouble with it. I set off without taking a good look. Within seconds I was surprised to have fallen to the base of this section. After several attempts, the surprise turned to frustration. I was completely pumped and yelling with every attempt to pull over the bulge. To top it off, my groans echoed off the surrounding granite faces, so I was forced to endure the sound of my struggle several times over.
AB: Andy’s repeated grunts echoed out against the opposing wall and I knew he was fighting his way past the crux. After a few minutes, a hearty laugh overtook me as I watched him claw up and fall back repeatedly like a fox, each attempt punctuated by more echoing man-noises. I yelled encouragement and beta between fits of laughter.
AGC: I honestly don’t know how I made it through the crux, but I do remember thinking “how is it that I always end up in these situations with Artem and how the heck am I drag myself to the top?”
“We’ll just take it slow and see how the rest goes”, Artem said.
I knew him well enough to hear both that he understood I was struggling but also that we were definitely making it to the top today. Sure enough, after a couple pitches of fun juggy climbing, we were snapping pictures of each other wiggled out to the edge of the summit. It was also the one place that I had cell service so far so we facetimed our partners to show off our view of El Capitan, the valley below and the garage floor-sized platform that we stood on. Tired, hungry, and happy, we talked in depth about devouring another pizza.
AB: Alas, it was time to return to civilization. We packed the truck and headed back in the midday glare. With windows down and blaring The Beach Boys, we drove the hills of California with a deep satisfaction. We stopped at a fresh fruit stand and for greasy burgers, soaking up every last minute of the experience…
The day after we returned to San Francisco, we packed up the truck again except this time we headed to the coast with surfboards. The conditions weren’t great, but there were rideable waves and for only having surfed a handful of times Artem was as bold in the water as he is on granite. Whether in the water or on the walls, maximizing the time with a good friend tops any hard sending.