I was wide awake. The bandanna I had tied around my eyes to fool myself into sleeping was a lost cause. I peered out from underneath my bandanna only to find Adam peering back at me from underneath his. We gave up and went into the kitchen. The clock on the stove read 5:00 pm. We had been strategically going to sleep earlier and waking up earlier in preparation for our climb, but I guess going to sleep at 3:00 pm was a little too extreme for our bodies to accept. What should we do? Should we drive to the Valley and start climbing? Should we try to get some work done? Read? Eat? We wanted nothing more than to be well-rested for the climb. I Googled “foods that make you fall asleep” for inspiration. We had a snack, reviewed the topo one more time, and assumed the position – lying in bed with bandannas over our eyes.
My phone whistled alive and I instantly snapped up from a light sleep and turned the alarm off. The usual morning fog that lingered over my body wasn’t there. Adam and I sprung out of bed – it’s time to climb the Nose! The clock on the stove now read 10:30 pm. We got dressed, made breakfast to go, and jumped in the van, which was already packed with all our gear.
We had climbed the Nose once before, over the course of 2 nights and 3 days, but this time we were going for the NIAD – the Nose in a day. We were indulging in a classic climbing game, where you see how much climbing you can fit into 24 hours. Logical? Probably not. Fun? Most definitely!
Consequently, I found myself racking up with Adam in El Cap Meadow just after midnight. It was the summer solstice and a full moon – I couldn’t think of a better time to give it a try. 3,000 feet of immaculate granite rose up in front of us, illuminated by the moon like a precious gem in a museum showcase. The thought of climbing up that massive formation in less than 24 hours seemed ridiculous and, quite frankly, a bit arrogant. I thought back to a quote from the climbing legend, Bev Johnson, “I kept thinking and thinking the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time”. So Adam and I hiked to the base, and at 3:00 am we took our first bite.
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My back was soaking wet against my pack when I arrived at the top of the first pitch. I panicked. My water is leaking! If there was one element that could make or break our climb it would be lack of water in the summer heat. I took out Adam’s water bottles, which we had portioned out for each segment of the climb. They all appeared to be intact. I pulled out my water bladder and gave it a squeeze. A thin squirt of water shot out of the very top. I sucked down as much water as I could until the level had dropped below the tiny hole. As long as the bladder stayed upright in my backpack I shouldn’t loose any more water to the leak.
A glimmer of light flashed down on us as we made our way through the Stove Legs. It wasn’t until I was almost at the anchor that I realized it was a solo climber waking up from what looked like a very uncomfortable, unplanned bivy. As I belayed Adam upward, the climber debated whether he should push on or call it quits and bail. I wished him luck, locked my ascenders onto the rope, and hastily chased up the wall after Adam.
Dolt Tower gave us a quick opportunity to get reorganized and refueled before continuing up to El Cap Tower. The sun was almost ready to bounce over the horizon and we savored the cooler temperatures of pre-dawn. A party of three Argentines were brewing coffee and organizing gear on El Cap Tower as Adam and I hustled past. They had fixed ropes to the top of the Boot Flake, but kindly allowed us to pass through and continue on our way. I lowered Adam from the top of the Boot Flake until his feet were level with the second bolt of the pitch. Holding the rope in one hand, he ran his feet along the wall to the left to build momentum. He abruptly changed directions and ran to the right, building more speed, and then in a single fluid motion, Adam swung to the left, grabbed the sloping arête, and pulled his body over onto Eagle Ledge. However, a little after our smooth and efficient execution of King Swing, we hit our first snag in a very literal sense.
As Adam led up the pitch off of Eagle Ledge the tagline he was trailing pulled taught to his harness. I tugged, shook, yanked… it didn’t budge. It was caught between two rocks well below the anchor. I would have to rappel back down to free it before we could continue up. I cringed at the thought of the time we were wasting. But hardly does a big wall ever climb completely problem free. You simply have to adapt – solve the problem and continue moving.
As the climbing took us to the start of the Great Roof, one of the most impressive and belittling features on the Nose, we welcomed the relief of its fleeting shade. The climbing from that point on was a blur of thirst and sun-baked lips. We had turned on autopilot, settling into the “get it done” routine of climb, short fix, jug, repeat. We didn’t complain about our sore hands or our dried up water bottles – instead we poured our energy into each pitch and doing so with a smile on our face to keep morale high. It wasn’t until the last pitch, when the top was within grasping distance, that I gave in to fatigue and lost my climbing Zen state of mind. The sun had left us and I shivered as I belayed Adam. Time moved slowly. I was like an astronaut floating in space with only the bubble of my headlamp tethering me to the rock. I couldn’t wait to have solid ground under my feet again; to remove my harness from my chaffed hips and legs; to sit on flat ground instead of hanging in the tipped over world of a big wall.
Adam finally went off belay and I attached my jumars to the rope one last time. The wall was steep and I dangled in space. Although darkness concealed the exposure beneath my feet, I knew it was there. I was too tired to acknowledge it, however, so I jugged upward towards liters of water and the warm sleeping bag that was waiting for me at the top. Finally, as if tired itself, the wall eased up and leaned back into a gentle slab. There it was – the beautiful pine tree that marked the official end of the Nose. Less than 24 hours ago, Adam and I had been lying in bed with bandannas over our eyes. Now, I hugged the pine tree, and then hugged Adam.
Adam and I savored our time on El Cap. We spent the night sleeping under star studded skies in the most spectacular bivy in the Valley. The next morning we watched from the warmth of our sleeping bag as the sun rose over Half Dome and showered us in golden light. And in that moment my best friend asked me to marry him… and of course, I said yes!