Brett at the Pitch 7 Bivy
Brett and I looked up at the first 4 pitches of Tangerine Trip from the base of the route. It was hard to make the features out since there was a cloud of mosquitoes in our eyes and an incessant dripping from above below made us squint to see. I was interested in the Trip since it would be a new El Cap route for me, but now, after a punishing humping of loads, it looked like it might be start out as a slimy, wet, grovel.

We hiked a bit further out into the talus to check out our backup alternate: Zodiac. It was like night and day. The mosquitoes vanished, the expanse of clean, beautiful stone opened up, and the drip diminished. We took a deep breath and sighted a party on the second pitch.

I greeted them with feigned innocence that inquired about their plans without threatening to climb up their butts for the next five days. When they replied that they had just been practicing aid, a new vision began to dawn in my pea brain.

The next party was high on the route. Zodiac without any crowded hassle? What an indulgent, seducing, luxurious prospect! I started doing the math in my mind. How many years ago had I climbed Zodiac? Fortunately, they were round numbers. I realized it was 20 years ago to the month, when I soloed Zodiac as my second grade VI climb. It was one of the epic adventures of my life and one of the earliest solo ascents of the route. A horrendous storm nearly drove me to need a rescue, but I sneaked up the final few pitches during breaks in the weather.

It was going to be Brett's first wall. We met a few months earlier at the base of El Cap. Sometimes I'll take a few shots of other folks climbing and email copies to them. I think it's good Ju Ju. Brett and his partner were making a bilingual ascent of Sacherer Cracker with healthy gusto. That showed me that he was a competent climber with an inclination to aid climbing. I knew that Zodiac would be a more classic experience for him than the Trip.

We finalized the plans on our second load humping. It would be Zodiac, again after 20 years!

We were a little startled to find a bear at the very start of our route the next day. It looked like he was going to climb in my aiders hanging from the first bat-hook hole! We admired him with awe for a minute, then I chased him off like I was going to eat him alive. Tough love for his own good.

It was a luxury to clip the 3/8" bolts beginning the first pitch. When I first did the route, there were very few hangers on any of the many 1/4" bolts. It was less luxurious to find almost no fixed gear higher on the pitch. Aliens, Offsets, and Cam Hooks got me past a short section where fixed heads had been cleaned. Brett followed the pitch in no time flat. Everything was looking good. The second pitch starts out with a horizontal traverse out a roof. Brett got a bit worked following it. The next lead was his. Despite practice climbs, most folks take forever to lead pitches on their first wall, and Brett was no exception. I was thankful for the A5 belay chair by the time he was off belay.

I arrived at the anchors. Brett had correctly assessed the magnitude of the potential days of suffering ahead, and had doubts about going on. I had some of those feelings too, but knew from experience that it only takes a couple of days before the sharpness of the pain dulls into a feeling of epic adventure. We could decide to bail or sail in the morning. We fixed the first three pitches. The next day, Brett was ready to rock.

The challenge I set out for myself was to do the route clean. When I soloed Zodiac in 1982, I nailed on almost every pitch. Back then, I only had rigid stemmed friends from #1 to #4. No Offsets, no Cam Hooks. Lost Arrows and Baby Angles ruled the route in those days. The next gauntlet in the clean challenge was the section above the Black Tower. I was finding the route remarkably free of fixed gear. That could be a problem on the thin rurp crack rising above the impact zone of the Tower. It was a problem! Stubborn craftiness and willingness to live with uncertainty deposited me at the pitch 7 anchors. I set up camp and belayed Brett leading pitch 8. He was in the groove now. We were committed with no regrets.

We enjoyed the austere luxuries of the bivy: Food, drink and respite from various dangers and pains, not to mention a sublime view. A full moon inspired us each night. The next day we would climb the great white circle of beautiful white granite that makes Zodiac stand out from the valley.

Pitch 9 ascended the heart of the pure, sweeping splendor of the circle. It was tricky but we were still had a clean conscience. It was pitch 10, the Nipple, that threatened to bring the hammer out. The pitch starts out with a long, thin, horizontal traverse under a roof with almost no fixed gear. I could have cam hooked much of it, but that would have hosed Brett while following and probably meant fixing some of our own gear. Like many tricky pitches, the gear that made a big difference. No Aliens, no offsets, no admission! It all worked out and this time Brett cleaned the traverse with grace, even though some of my tiny nuts ripped on him while jugging.

We established our hanging camp in the supreme location under the Zorro Roof at the top of the Circle. Millimeters of nylon portaledge fabric created the illusion that we weren't just pinned to a blank wall above the yawning void.

The next morning, I started soloing the Zorro Roof pitch while Brett broke down the ledge and attached assorted tails on the pig. I was back on a regular belay before a short dicey section, but, like 20 years earlier, the steep part of the roof was mostly fixed. The remaining excitement for the day consisted of some pesky back-cleaning and hook traverses. My little brain had forgotten much of the route but memorable sections flashed back from time to time. The traverse at the end of pitch 12 was one of those flashbacks. I remember having to use a copperhead on it 20 years ago and hoped to get it clean this time. Close examination revealed hook moves at the appropriate intervals and voila!

Pitch 13 had a different kind of crux. I had been harboring a yearning to urinate for a few pitches. Considering the wind direction, my partner below, and other factors, I just didn't have a chance to do so for a while. At first, the inclination for urination was mild, but it built. Finally, at the last bolt before freeclimbing, I thought I had my chance. I deployed the trouser snake and gave the rock a good hosing so the wind didn't blow it a portion right back up at me.

Unfortunately, after carefully zipping the goods away, I realized I misjudged the route. Instead of heading straight up to a small stance, it was a bat hook move that would take me through the heart of my own piss! Dang! I thought I could stall for a moment and let it dry up. After all, Brett was out of sight and wouldn't notice a pause in the rhythm of slow aid climbing. The problem was, it just wasn't that hot or windy, and the wee-wee wasn't drying up very fast. Finally, my ingrained sense of urgency and efficiency prevailed. I told myself "Urine is sterile and you've been well hydrated. No problem!"

I could have said my crap didn't stink either but the poop tube kept testifying otherwise. I carefully made the hook move, keeping only the tips of my toes against the offending stone. As I moved to freeclimbing however, my foot skated as I made my first move. I thought "Great, what a way to get whacked! Skating in my own piss!" A little chalk cured the problem and soon we were at Peanut Ledge (no pun intended.)

I had another flashback at our Peanut Ledge bivy. That's where I suffered grievously in the rain and snow 20 years ago. This time the weather was exquisitely mild. Zodiac seemed to be making up for spanking me so many years ago. Brett lead most of the next pitch while I unpacked. We were brothers by this time. Bonded by dangling, thrashing, and crapping together, we were sniffing the sweet inevitability of the summit.

After another sweet moonlit night, we gunned for the top. It all went smoothly, even with Brett enjoying a healthy swing into space on pitch 15. Soon we were on the Summit, enjoying rare luxuries like walking.

Actually walking wasn't much of a luxury since, once saddled with a ton of gear, all we could manage was a meager waddle. The hike down seemed like it would be a harsh penance indeed, and it was! Amazingly though, by the time we finished the rappels, downclimbs, and grovels, we both slipped into a trance-like, second wind. We practically skipped down the trail down beside Manure Pile buttress!

Ironically, the joy at hoisting the pig into the car far exceeded the victory at the summit. Climbing El Cap is great, but it's like beating yourself over the head with a hammer cause it feels great when you stop. We didn't hammer on the stone, but we couldn't spare ourselves. The procession of once taken-for-granted pleasures could begin now that the vision quest was over. It began with the instant cure: a plunge in the cool Merced River, and continued at my place with beer and hot food! I could ask myself which changed more in the past twenty years: the route? Aid climbing? Myself? Everything changed, but analyzing it would only mock the limitations of memory. Reality is here and now. Life was and is, very, very good!

Peace and Happy Climbs.


Solo in 1982 Trip Report

Three Legged Race up Zodiac in 2009 Trip Report

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#46 Trying to Jump our Route
Belays in Yellow Bivies in Green
Karl leading Pitch 2
Jugging Pitch 1
Brett Cleaning the Gear
Baba leading 9
Brett Cleaning Pitch 9 in the Circle
Karl on the Nipple
Brett Cleaning one of Several Traverses
Brett Leading the Circle Pitch 8
Swinging on Jugs while Cleaning a Hook Traverse
Taking the Swing
Baba, Pitch 15
The Sunset as We were Leaving the Valley on Summit Day