Shield Trip Report

Love thy enemy as thy Partner

Around 1990, I was Employee Housing and Human Resource Manager for the Southern End of Yosemite National Park. I did my best to mediate between the corporate interests of the concessionaire and the human interests of the employees. It was a union environment, and one of the local union stewards was particularly abrasive and militant in fighting for real and imagined causes. To the other managers, he was the devil incarnate. The devil's name was Neil, and he was also a climber.

One day, while debating some issue or another, he joked that we should climb EL Cap together. This was a little like suggesting Yassar Arafat team up with the Israeli leader for a paddleboat expedition around the Mediterranean. I jokingly accepted but as time wore on, the joke became more serious. He couldn't find competent climbers who would endure his harsh manners, and I was entertaining "Love thy Enemies/Build a Bridge of Understanding" type of thoughts.

Before we knew it, we were headed up Freeblast with the Shield in our sights. We reached Mammoth Terraces around dark and fixed our lines at night. We were headed up the ropes early the next day, and were terrified to hear the dreaded whistling of a heavy object accelerating through space in our direction. We managed to catch a glimpse of a piton hammer screaming past us about 15 feet to our right. Neil was pissed and exclaimed that "Anyone stupid enough to drop their hammer had no business climbing El Cap in the first place!" A remark that would come to haunt him later. He was rattled. I didn’t take it personally, nobody drops their hammer intentionally. I figured sometimes curses become blessings. The hammer droppers weren’t high on the route, they would have to come down. We would have the Shield to ourselves without them to potentially shit and piss on us. Sure enough, the offending party rapped past us later in the day and the route was ours.

Once the free-climbing was over, Neil proved to be a slow aid-climber. He took a fall on the easy aid leading up from Grey ledges. It was becoming painfully apparent that his wall speed and competency weren't what he imagined. I knew the feeling. Before the ski season, I always imagined myself pounding down fields of moguls with a few rad jumps interspersed. The reality on the snow was always less spectacular. I was relieved when the fall inspired him to let me lead the pitches for the next few days.

I felt like I was walking on eggshells being on the wall with him. He was prone to frustration-born outbursts at the slightest suggestion that he do anything differently. I felt a sense of dread. I felt worse than alone. I resolved to girdle my loins for the days ahead. The technicalities of following traversing and overhanging pitches gave him plenty of fuel for his emotional fire. An incessant, maddening wind fanned the flames further. In my more paranoid moments, I wasn't sure I could trust him to catch the big fall if it came. He could strike an imaginary blow for worker’s rights by sacrificing me to the yawning void.

I had some quiet revenge when we bivied in hammocks on the overhanging headwall. It was butt-cold and windy. I wasn't a bit warm, even tucked away in my bag. In the middle of the night, with the wind still howling, Neil had to take a dump. I couldn’t even conceive of exposing my rump region to those elements, much less untangling myself from a web of ropes, webbing, and cords at night on the blank wall. I listened to the flailing sounds of Neil extracting himself from his hammock with the wind whistling and wailing. I had to restrain myself from snickering but then he announced that he might have crapped on our ropes by mistake. I prayed it wasn't so. Handling a rope frosted with ripening excrement was low on my vacation time priorities.

The next day dawned turd-free. I embarked on the famous "Groove Pitch". I had heard somebone had fallen near the top of this once A-5 pitch and zippered the whole thing! There was enough manky, tenuous crap fixed in the crack to stir my imagination. When aid climbing, you often fall without warning, suddenly you hear a "Ping!" and you are weightless. The uncertainty and exposure creates an insistent undercurrent of anxiety that nags at your composure. I was standing on a small copperhead when I heard a sharp sound and found myself sailing through the air, 2000 feet above the ground. Fortunately or unfortunately, I hadn't clipped into the truly trashy pieces below me so I kept falling. My reality warped for a few timeless moments until I was caught by a fixed rurp, Boing! It was like being at the end of a rubber band. Neil asked if I was OK and I asked if he was OK… We were. Thanks for the catch Brother Neil! I was beginning to get a feeling for understanding and accepting him on his own terms. Suffering and adventure creates bonds where simple familiarity doesn’t.

I was happy that the tattered and rusty pieces I didn’t clip were still there for my return trip up to the first and last copperhead I would have to place on the route. I didn’t want to place, or trust, a little copperhead again after my fall, but you can’t fight reality. Soon we were on to the Triple Cracks.

The Triple Cracks are a great series of splitter cracks on an otherwise blank overhanging headwall. In 1990, it was quite a nice piton-whacking stretch of rock. I could finally watch Neil cleaning and I saw he didn't know how to use his jumars on traverses. I asked him if I could give him some tips, but he angrily insisted that he knew what he was doing. I don't know why he thought insisting 2+2=5 was going to salvage his ego. I wasn't going berate him for not knowing the tricks, but insisting that he did know them was maddening. By this time, my patience was threadbare and we snapped at each other.

I found that, because Neil was combative by nature, I could fire off some angry abuse and, just a few minutes later, we could be chatting as if nothing had happened. I found a similar, cultural difference in communication styles when I lived in New York for a couple summers. A mellow California guy, I shuddered to confront anyone, but I found that confrontation was New York for "Hello". People were always yelling at each other. It seemed that they reserved profanity for real emotional moments, just so they knew when somebody was really angry. Neil and I didn't spare each other any profanity, and it felt good not be on eggshells anymore. Finally, he was thrutching with the jumars so badly that he gave up and accepted my advice. I gave him the beta without rubbing anything in. In a awkward and male kind of way, we were beginning to understand each other.

That night, on a long and narrow ledge, I noticed that some of the water knots on his gear were sporting rather short tails. He wasn't very pleased when I mentioned that he should be mindful that such knots come untied easily. We exchanged abuses and then went back to chatting about life and the climb as if nothing had happened. It looked like we were going to make it after all.

We must have been three or four pitches from the top when Neil felt ready to lead some pitches again. We had the time. The difficulty and angle kicked back considerably. I was hanging at the belay when suddenly I heard a familiar but ominous sound. It was that damn whistling sound of a falling object! Ironically, I watched Neil's hammer flying past the belay on its long flight to the talus! Total Karma, Man! I didn't say anything but I think it think he abused me anyway for the look on my face. The water knot on Neil’s hammer had come undone, and down it went. Neil felt he wasn't in the category of idiot hammer-droppers because he didn't drop it , it came untied! I felt the Gods had spoken.

In 1990, the pitches leading to the top still required pitons. Since we only had one hammer now, I back-cleaned the ones I used. Soon we were shaking hands on the summit.

We took summit pictures giving each other the finger. We were only half serious. We did somehow come to an understanding and respect for each other. We fought battles at work with each other in the future, but with respect and without pettiness.

I'm sure if Neil had the opportunity to write a report of this same climb, he would have a different perspective on our time together. Neil was a brilliant mind but he never opened his heart or tempered his ego, and that cost him. He would have been a fine lawyer and others might have benefited from the heat-tempered strength that he could offer. He was eventually fired and took to robbing banks. He is serving a long prison sentence at this time. I wrote to him in jail a few times, but wasn’t faithful about it. Some folks take the hard road. Climbing can attract folks who have a fire within, but can't stand up to their own heat. It is my hope that Neil finds freedom someday, within and without. Come to think about it, I wish that for us all.



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The Big Stone: The Shield climbs the route outlined in red.
The last pitch that the Shield shares with the Muir/Triple Direct Route
The Traverse below the Shield Roof
Above and Below: Karl Leading the Shield Roof
Neil getting up in the Middle of the night to take a dump on the Sheild route on El Cap.
Neil Jugging on the Headwall
The Headwall Pitches.
High on the Shield