Sign from the Zodiac

What did you learn from failure?
“That the journey is worthwhile.”
-Diana Nyad, the world’s greatest endurance swimmer

The day’s final pitch followed a sloping corner up the black tower until it reached a steep micro thin crack. It would be dark by the time my partner, Adam Long, finished leading the pitch so I readied my head lamp on my helmet and pulled on a jacket. I could hear him up there, mumbling about equalizing many tiny pieces of gear before he could attach his etrier and stand up on it. If a piece blew he would land ass first on the pointing tip of the black tower. This extra edge whipped him into his grove though, and he confidently cruised through sunset to the next belay.

Adam looking down at the tip of the black tower.

Adam looking down at the tip of the black tower.

With the static line released and Adam hauling the pigs, I attached my ascenders to the fixed lead line and got my own grove on cleaning the pieces of protection from the crack as I jugged the rope. I arrived at the edge of the Great White Circle, also known as the Pearly Gates, and found Adam just as psyched as I was to be on El Capitan. After his first attempt was thwarted by circumstances out of his control, we thought for sure this attempt would see us send the Zodiac. (The climb was named for both the zodiac killer and the wellspring of fascination with astrology in the early 70’s by the first ascentionist, Charlie Porter.)

It had been a sweaty exhausting day, the kind where it’s impossible to keep hydrated. But, before hanging our heels off the edge we had to deal with the z order: the never ending management of how ropes and gear are tied to where and in what order to keep them moving smoothly and prohibit tangling. Thus ensued about 10 minutes of shuffling about. We had the luxury of a 2 foot by 8 foot ledge to stand on, above which bolts had been drilled to allow for multiple anchor points and a place to the side of the rock ledge to hang the portaledge.

Adam setting up the ledge

Adam setting up the ledge

Having stacked and organized the gear at my end of the ledge, I made my way along the horizontal hand line we were clipped into and onto the portaledge. Adam had pulled out our sleeping bags and a few other items from the big pig (the larger of our two haul bags) and I busied myself organizing and clipping gear into the straps of the ledge. I reached a moment of stillness, took a satisfying deep breath and stared into the dark toward Cathedral Rocks.

In the peripheral glow of my head lamp, my eyes caught a passing blur of something light colored tip off the belay. Immediately I turned to face Adam. “What just fell off?!” I asked in a panic. “The haul bag,” he bluntly replied. So bluntly I thought he was joking. Then he pressed his forefinger and thumb to the space between his eyebrows above his glasses. This is Adam’s signature reaction when a situation goes sideways. He wasn’t joking. I glanced to where both pigs had been resting on the ledge. Only the smaller yellow bag we called Danger Pig remained.

We both froze, paralyzed by what was coming. Seconds went by with him standing on the ledge, me sitting crossed legged on the portaledge. We waited for it. And it came. The explosive sound of a pvc canvas bag, big enough for me to crawl into, crushing against the boulder strewn ground 800 feet below.

A nauseating adrenaline rush shot into my gut. We knew no one was climbing below us and just prayed that no one had hiked up to the base after dark. I shined my light on the anchor Adam was attached to and said, “Don’t move.” We inspected ourselves and the rest of the gear to make sure we were properly anchored in. We each had two daisy chains attached to the hand line and were tied in to the anchor with the rope. I tried to recall what was in the bag we had lost to assess our immediate needs and options. Adam made his way to the portaledge and sat motionless, finger and thumb on the brow, trying to figure out how it happened.

We lost our extra layers of clothing (except two puffy jackets), the majority of our food, two Budweiser’s that I had scored at the top of pitch 4, Adam’s prescription sunglasses, (pretty essential when you’re climbing on a giant, white, south-facing slab of rock), his phone, our tunes (way crucial), personal effects and a gallon of water. We could have suffered through the next two days without those items, were it not for the loss of all the cams over 1 inch wide. There would be no reasonable way for us to continue up the wider cracks in the pitches above without them.

We quickly reached the conclusion that we had to bail, but since we had everything we needed to make it through the night in relative comfort, it could wait till morning. We pulled out two bags of tasty bites, flat bread and whiskey. Sans spoons we sucked the contents out of the bags cold. We nixed the option to use the stove to put a halt to any Murphy’s law trends and decided to forgo the whiskey till we had two feet on the ground.

We were each running through a wild suite of emotions: frustration at not being able to continue, disappointment in whatever series of errors or actions led to the loss, fear of hurting someone below, guilt in providing human food to the wild animals, bewilderment at not understanding how it happened.

Sleeping on a portaledge is uncomfortable in the best of circumstances, but exhaustion usually overrules discomfort. This night, Adam and I lay head to toe, the suspension fins keeping us from rolling to the center and veritably pinning me against the wall, and stared wide eyed out into the clam shell view of the stars created by the overhanging enormity of El Cap’s east side.

I knew Adam was deeply disturbed by losing the bag. I was too. Was this a second chance reminder to never let our guard down? Or a message that we shouldn’t be up there? Our frazzled minds pondered on in silence.

Without knowing the other was doing the same thing, we sleeplessly tracked the hours of darkness by checking Orion’s position every time we opened our eyes. I was so relieved when he finally bumped into the nose of El Cap.

Ahhh! Finally, morning!

Ahhh! Finally, morning!

We sat in the ledge chewing on dry granola and cookies and theorized why the haul bag fell. Adam wasn’t even touching it when it tipped off, meaning he had either unclipped it earlier without realizing what he had done, or it unclipped itself.

We decided to put it aside and focus on descending safely with our remaining gear. We’d have to use the rope bags as additional haul bags since Danger Pig was stuffed to the brim. I rappelled first, taking running jumps sideways to gain the offset anchors below, then held a fireman’s belay to help Adam control his speed and angle him in as he lowered with the load.

Adam on the last rappel with the gear

Adam on the last rappel with Danger Pig

Once on the ground we reached for the whiskey and followed the trail of wreckage to our fallen pig. A few sips to our dehydrated bodies and we were laughing up a storm to find what bizarre twisted treasures the bag held.

What once was an insulated Klean Kanteen

What once was an insulated Klean Kanteen


Not just shattered, but twisted, Adam's iphone actually came back to life when plugged into a computer!

Not just shattered, but twisted, Adam’s iphone actually came back to life when plugged into a computer!

This bud was not for us.

This bud was not for us.

Surprisingly, a few items made it through unscathed. The haul bag itself appeared scuffed, but undamaged. Our clothing was fine. My mini boom box was already cranking out the tunes as we sifted. The food was long gone by creatures in the night and a circle of ravens that morning. The extra pro was reduced to a bag of very expensive metal paperweights. Each piece appearing strikingly similar to its former self, yet with a strange twist here, or a wobbly cam wing there. I failed to hide my smirk in finding the number 4 and 5 were toast. Oh damn, no more off width.

We drowned our disappointment in the whiskey, packed our crap and stumbled down to the valley floor where we assumed gawking positions in El Cap meadow and let the pig discussion continue.

Feeling oh-so-fresh after the hike down.

Feeling oh-so-fresh after the hike down.

With 40 years of collective climbing experience between the two of us, it was hard to admit we had made such a mistake. But of course, that’s when they happen, when you have done something so many times that it becomes automatic and you stop thinking. We retraced our steps and our habits trying to identify what series of events had led to the accident.

When Adam hauled the load up he sat the two pigs side by side on the ledge and backed up the swivel to which they were both attached. Danger Pig is smaller and so had tension between its straps and the swivel. The bigger pig sat with slack in its straps and had no tension pulling against the swivel. It’s typical to detach one strap so that it’s easier to access the contents of the bag and this was the case with big pig since Adam had been unloading its contents. Adam recalled having seen the one attached strap of big pig twisted around its carabiner.

The type of carabiner attaching the pig to the swivel was a Black Diamond twist lock. A twist lock gate can be opened in one twisting motion and pull with a finger and thumb, whereas a screw gate requires multiple unscrewing motions to unlock the gate before it can be pulled opened.

The empty orange carabiner is where the haul bag had been attached.

The empty orange carabiner is where the haul bag had been attached.

Because Adam has no recollection of removing the second strap from the carabiner, and because of the noted circumstances that he noticed the strap twisted, we presume that in the shuffle of moving other gear around on the ledge, in the dark, the carabiner’s gate got twisted and pushed open giving the slack strap the opportunity to fall out. This conclusion disturbed me because I use the same twist lock carabiner to rappel and belay with. Upon inspection, we found that the carabiner attaching the haul bag was past its prime and the spring loaded gate was not functioning at the same snappy rate that my new twist gate ‘biner was performing. This would have made it appear as if it was locked closed, when in fact, it would only take light pressure on the gate to open it. It may sound unlikely, but so is actually taking a strap out after 20 years of conditioning to never allow anything to be left unsecured on a wall.

Chris McNamara mentions the following in a discussion on twist lock vs. screw gate lockers on his Outdoor Gear Lab website:
“A screw-gate carabiner can feel more secure [than a twist gate] in an anchor because it is less likely that the gate can open accidentally if the carabiner is moved into an awkward position.”

Whatever the actual cause of the accident, we consider ourselves lucky. Aside from the expense of replacing broken possessions, we were not injured, didn’t harm anyone else, had an easy retreat and didn’t require rescue. It was a shocking wake up call. Probably just what we both needed if we are to continue climbing for many years to come.

Lessons learned:


  • Inspect your gear and retire it when it’s questionable. Why stretch a dollar when it’s your life on the line?
  • Always double check yourself and your partner- especially when you’re tired, dehydrated, cold, and it’s dark. Redundancy, redundancy, redundancy.
  • Know your route, it’s retreat potential, your partner’s abilities and most importantly, your own.
  • Always yell, “ROCK!”


Reaching for the button heads

Reaching for the button heads


Adam looking up to his next move, his favorite, the inverted cam hook.

Adam looking up to his next move, his favorite, the inverted cam hook.

Non climbers always ask these questions about big wall climbing, so here ya go:

“How do you go to the bathroom up there?”

Pee in a designated cup or funnel and pour it down the wall (peeing into the void could result in it raining back down on you with all the weird air currents along the wall).
Poop in a wag bag or paper bag with kitty litter, stuff that in either a 4″ PVC canister or double bag it and keep it in a designated mini haul bag. Dispose of in a dumpster. “Aerial deliveries” are illegal and disgusting. Asking your partner to turn their head is as much privacy as you’re gonna get. It’s necessary to keep your harness on all the time, (with the exception of a few really big ledges) so there is a quick release for the straps between the leg loops and waist belt. Yes, you also sleep with a harness on. Comfy eh?

Is there a permitting process to climb?

Nope, it’s a free for all with a never ending forum on climbing ethics and who goes first. Not unlike surfing there could be a line up for popular routes, but there could also be discussion and agreement to let faster parties go first or pass en route. That said, we only saw three other parties from the Nose to the east buttress while we were there.

Why big wall climbing?

It is the most intense test of physical, mental, and emotional endurance I’ve ever experienced. Because you see things like a frog hanging out 1000 feet off the deck, watch swifts fly at 20 mph into undercut cracks two inches wide with the precision of a surgeon, and you look down on hawks and see them hunting from above. It is a vertical trip of a few thousand feet, but you are virtually miles away from the rush of people and tourists and have the most stunning view of the world. It’s thrilling, it’s fun and yes, it’s scary. It’s also downtime at the belay where you might have an hour to do nothing but contemplate the world or the lichen growing inches from your face.
And, because it is simply amazing up there.

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