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Hazel Findlay: Guests—Sharing and Sending El Cap’s Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017
BD Athlete Hazel Findlay spent late November and early December chilling on El Cap, reading, enduring a storm, shouting nursery rhymes down at the Valley floor, and ruminating on the fact that climbers are merely just brief guests on the big stone. Oh, and she also managed to nab her fourth free-route on the Captain, sending the beautiful and iconic Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b). Here, she shares the experience of spending quality time with her partner Jonny Baker—and not to mention the squeaking bats—on the side of El Cap.

We turned on our phones to check the date.

“This ledge has had us to stay for five days” I exclaimed.

Jonny laughed.

“You make it sound like we’re guests come to visit.”

“Well that’s right. El Capitan is housing us briefly.”

We got to know Long Ledge quite well during our five-day visit, likely because it’s about six-meters long and half a meter wide. It boasts a rock, a sandy part, a few shrubs and a stench of piss common to most of El Cap’s popular routes. Beyond the ledge, chiefly below the ledge, stretches an expanse of granite so vast it’s likely I’ll never claim to know it. Much like a boat floating on an ocean, our portaledge hung poised above the deep, and Long Ledge was our anchor. Together with a large sum of rock there is also a fair quantity of air below the ledge. In fact, the wall overhangs so much there are 800 meters worth of air from your feet to the trees.

Images: Jonny Baker

If you were to stand in the meadow underneath the wall and look toward our position you would see a large shield of rock which caps the line known as the Salathé Wall. A 70-meter crack strikes through this headwall like a thunderbolt. You won’t find a better protected trad route; for most of the headwall you can get a piece of gear in every inch. Even if you were to be a complete arse and fail to place any good gear, you wouldn’t hit anything for a very long time. Despite this, the exposure is enough to get your bowels and stomach talking to your head, telling you not to go. For these reasons, we came to stay on Long Ledge, a convenient spot just above the point where this crack peters out.

A week before, we rapped in from above to try the headwall. We tried out the moves, tested our abilities, tested possibilities.

Jonny was dangling below and I was up on the ledge belaying, probably day dreaming or looking at my phone. All of a sudden, he squealed like a little boy and leapt from the crack. In such a place, random squeals of this kind are the sort of thing that deep-fry your nerves to the roots. I looked down to see Jonny jerking around on the line looking in horror at the crack.

“What is it?” I yelled.

“A bat! He’s trying to get my feet!”

This was our first interaction with the bats. Throughout our stay at Long Ledge, Jonny—not a fan of the little creatures, I think due to his caving experiences as a child in Yorkshire—stayed fearful. I grew to see them as our unintended housemates; not really our friends but nonetheless under the same roof. It being out of season, late November, some days Jonny and I were the only humans on the wall. In the absence of other humans, my curiosity in the bats grew. It got me thinking, what’s it like to be a bat? for the first time since I was at University studying philosophy. When I rested, I peered into the crack to try and see them. I was jealous that one had come out to see Jonny. For me they would stay deep in there—so deep their squeaks of protest were the only proof of their existence. Well, that and their excrement. I wondered what they thought we were doing climbing up the edge of their homes, why there was white powder on their doorsteps and tick marks in their garden. Mostly I wished they would not piss and shit so much on the already slippery rock. I guess they could easily have wished the same from us. During my successful attempts, however, I rarely thought about the bats.

Sunday was the day that we arrived at Long Ledge. Tired, and yearning for respite we were happy to set up our portaledge on an actual ledge. The past few days had been hot and heavy. Even in late November the Californian sun better resembles a death star than anything you actually want to exist under. We were dehydrated most days, sun burnt and yet we reluctantly embraced the labour of the wall; hauling, climbing, dealing with ropes, sorting gear and most of all not dropping anything (or trying not to). As Sunday grew, the wind became fiercer and we noticed the distant virga becoming less distant. An excitement bubbled in me. A storm!

With the wind brought perfect conditions for the first part of the headwall, which went down pretty easily for me and Jonny. It stopped play for the second part. What we were looking for was a nice updraft, not getting blown off the wall. We also thought it better to invest some time in battening down the hatches; beefing up the fly on our portaledge, packing everything away, getting out only what we needed, waterproofing everything we could. Once we were happy with our survival unit—our portaledge now resembling a kid’s school-project spacecraft, packaged in tag line and duct tape—we dropped below to play on the top part of the headwall on top rope.

I was happy to be able to switch off and flow through the moves. This section had been a question mark for me, but now it wasn’t. I fell on to the rope in delight and shouted to Jonny “I can do it.” Just as the last light faded from the wall I became aware that the shadows were moving more than they should. Small black shadows started encircling my feet and then my body. They moved too swiftly for my eyes to focus on any one at a time and consequently I felt more in the presence of one thing than many.

“The bats!” I cried. "Look at the bats!”

This became a regular phenomenon during our stay. The swallows and the bats would often engage in some sort of sunset parade. The swallows were better show masters, but the bats were our housemates so we were more interested in them. Unlike the swallows, the bats have more of an erratic flight pattern. Instead of feeling like I was surrounded by a well synchronized shoal of fish, I felt like I was being overran. As soon as they came out of the crack, they were back in it and despite the energy of this event I was left wondering what they did with the rest of their day.

The “fun” of the storm wore off pretty quick. I read aloud some pages of “A River Runs Through It,” shouting against my sleeping bag and the rage of the wind. At this stage, the storm felt like it was galloping over us, always building a tireless speed. Our portaledge became a rocket stuck in “take-off” mode. The vibrations of the fly would intensify, climaxing in an almighty wallop, a buffeting that had me holding my breath in disbelief that our shelter would survive the night.

“Do you think the bats will be OK?” I asked Jonny. “Won’t they get washed out of the crack?”

I wasn’t really worried about our housemates, remembering they were only our housemates, not our friends. And just like a housemate who has forgotten to take their lunch to work, I felt a nod of sympathy in their direction.

“I think they are in the Salathé crack for a reason, Hazel. I think that crack stays dry.”

Jonny was right. While the bats were sleeping soundly, I shivered the night away in our rocket ship until dawn.

If El Cap is a human, then the tip of his toe is as big as a house … a four-story house. The great roof is a freckle. The trees below are blades of grass under his feet. The Salathé headwall a laughter line on a wry smile. And the climbers? They are fleas on his back.

We missed more than a day of climbing waiting for things to dry and brighten. This extended our stay on El Cap. We only came with so many supplies, so we were happy to receive Long Ledge’s gift of more water. We collected another four bottles of water running down beside our ledge. Other than this small task, we spent the whole day nestled in our damp, but now (thankfully), stationary rocket ship, reading and catching up on sleep. And of course, drinking many cups of tea. It was as if our host had switched the off-button and after a night of fury we were able to peacefully watch the clouds of precipitation fill and frame our fresh view of a whiter, wetter, colder world. At some points, I would gather some restless energy and shout down to the meadow, “We’re the kings of the castle and you’re the dirty rascals,” like a 4-year-old child. El Cap and the valley beneath did not reply. Happily, I would return to my book.

I’m all about the cool conditions. We woke early the next day and without a warm up I went for the top pitch. There are no bats in the top part of the headwall and I was able to fully focus on the cold crack cutting on my fingers, the strength in my body after rest and the unique movements of that final boulder problem. I grabbed the (slightly wet) final jug and shouted some things I wouldn’t have if anyone else were there but Jonny.

Jonny is an inexperienced crack climber and he hasn’t really pushed himself on trad since he nearly broke his back on the Yorkshire grit at age 14. Consequently, Jonny was finding the headwall more difficult than me. He gave the first endurance pitch the best of himself falling at the final jug, taking a piece of his finger and a huge whipper down the face. He tried again but with no improvements. Nursing his injuries Jonny said he hadn’t climbed like that for a long time, and on trad gear, never. This was also his first big wall experience. I wondered whether the bats could sense that something special had happened.

We had overstayed our welcome on Long Ledge but no one talked of failure. Jonny hadn’t sent. But, in a bigger sense, he had. We said goodbye to Long Ledge and our housemates, climbed the final three pitches to the summit and trudged through the snow back down to the valley floor. Our host was pleased to see us off and the bats continued to grease up the holds for the next guest.

Artwork: Rhiannon Williams

—Hazel Findlay

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