John Long: Gravity
Death on El Cap pulls two climbers in opposite directions
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 238 (November 2016).
I was hauling the pig to the top of the Half Dollar, 800-feet up the Salathé Wall, when the sound hit me like a punch. My head jerked right, and way over on the skyline I saw a human body pin wheeling from the bridge of the nose all the way to the toe of the South Buttress, some 3,000 feet later. Then, silence.
The body came and went in no time, but I didn’t move for what felt like an age, frozen at the anchor by the violence of a human meteor punching a hole through the sky.
I stared at my anchor. The haulbag was still half a rope length below. The pulley, racks and neatly stacked cords—all of this gear, and me standing there, eight pitches up El Capitan, felt criminal. I glanced down at my partner, Ed Barry, ratcheting up on ascenders and cleaning the pitch.
“Did you see that?!”
“No, but I sure the fuck heard it.”
I finished hauling the bag, and when Ed pulled onto the ledge we sucked back against the wall and started chain-smoking.
This was my first full summer in the Valley after graduating high school a month earlier. My mentor, Jim Bridwell, the biggest cheese in Yosemite climbing, said I had to get up on El Cap while I still was green and could find an epic. Now I hated Bridwell. And climbing. Next morning we rapped off and I hitchhiked back to Southern California. It was June 8, 1973.
I kicked around my folks’ place for a few days, doing yard work and sleeping like a wild animal, on and off or not at all. The Times reported that Michael Blake, 19, of Santa Monica, California, had fallen from the “last rope” of the Nose route on El Capitan. For reasons under investigation by park rangers, the rope had severed and Blake had died. I must have seen Blake out at Josh, or up at Tahquitz. Back then, few Southern California teenagers were scaling El Cap, but I couldn’t put a face to his name.
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Though I was only 18, my life didn’t flow, it spun and churned. But once I locked sights on Yosemite, the currents raced in one direction. Now every hour and sometimes more often, Michael Blake surged through my mind like a riptide. It took the rest of that summer and many winter weekends out at Joshua Tree before the ferocious downfall of Michael Blake ebbed away.
I returned to Camp 4 the following May, the moment school let out. Straight off I ran into Beverly Johnson. The previous autumn she’d made the first all-female ascent of El Cap, with Sibylle Hechtel, and I wanted to hear all about it. But Michael Blake jumped in from the shadows, and Bev turned gray.
“I just got to the belay at the end of the Great Roof” (1,800 feet up the Nose) she said, “when I heard what sounded like a rocket lifting off.” She looked up and saw, and nearly got cleaned right off the face by Michael Blake blazing past.
Bev wasn’t climbing much just then, she said. A couple of summers later she soloed the Dihedral Wall, also on El Cap, and I always wondered if that’s what it took to purge Michael Blake from her life. (Bev was nails like that, until she later died in a helicopter crash.) I kept going to Yosemite, climbing walls for another decade until I finally got enough during a heat wave on Mount Watkins, gasping up a first ascent with Bridwell.
Fast-forward four decades and change. I’d written so much about climbing in Yosemite that even I couldn’t face another John Long story about back-in-the-day. Then Dean Fidelman wrangled a deal to publish a large-format art book on Yosemite climbing in the 1950s, and he asked me to write the text. It took a year of haggling and revising before we finally finished Yosemite in the Fifties: The Iron Age.
Shortly after the book launch at Patagonia’s shop in Santa Monica, I got a call from Jerry Volger, a stranger to me but a local Venice, California man. A nephew had gifted him a copy of our new book. There was magic in the 50s, said Jerry. He knew because he’d been there, and when he cracked open our book it all came rushing back. He wanted to meet in person, though he never said why. I had too much going on to swap climbing stories with a hometown duffer, but for nameless reasons I felt compelled to go.
I met Jerry for breakfast a few days later, at a deli down in Marina del Rey. He had a collared shirt, a face thrown wide open and the eyes of a kid full of beans. Adventure people often have those eyes. The confusing part is how most of us die without ever growing old.
“I’m ancient,” said Jerry, now pushing 80, “but there was a time … ” And we both flew back to the Valley. Much as I had, Jerry came to climbing through athletics.
“I was a great surfer,” he said. “I did all the sports.”
Jerry had partnered with many of the Californians whom I’d idolized and frequently saw during my high school days out at Joshua Tree and Tahquitz, where the old guard used to hang. But by 1973, and well into his 30s, Jerry still hadn’t managed an ascent of El Capitan, the pot of gold for all California climbers.
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“Then I met a young man bouldering out at Stoney Point,” said Jerry. “An up-and-comer named Michael Blake.”
My hands gripped the table and I stared at Jerry, unsure which surprised me more: my recoil at hearing Blake’s name, or that through some cold-blooded fluke I was eating breakfast with Blake’s last partner. I had largely forgotten Blake for going on 20 years, though at random moments a kind of lunatic film clip of his fall would flash through my mind, shoved back into shadows as soon as the clip rolled out.
“I was there,” I said. “Over on the Salathé. I saw Blake falling down the Nose.”
Now Jerry stared at me. His wrinkled hands reached for his coffee cup.
“When I decided to call,” he said, “I looked up your name in the white pages and there were over 50 John Longs. But I was ready to ring them all to try and find you, to thank you for doing the book. The first number I tried was you.”
I must have scowled. From the darkest cranny in my mind, where I’d stuffed all the other junk, the ghost of Michael Blake sprang out like a Jack-in-the-Box, and was standing on the table with his hands around our throats.
“What happened up there?” I finally asked. “I know the rope broke but I never heard how.”
I wasn’t worried about asking awful questions and rattling an old man, and wasn’t amused that unseen forces had shoved us together. Blake was back, and we had to deal.
“I was hanging from the bolts at the last belay,” he said—then he stopped.
I’d visited that belay numerous times, at the top of the final headwall, with continents of air sucking at my feet, the trees and river, and tiny cars creeping along the loop road feeling more like a mirage than anything real. Just above this last anchor the wall rolls back abruptly after a few body lengths of easy fifth-class friction.
“Mike was coming up the last bolts,” said Jerry, “which, if you remember, run a little sideways. I’d just hauled up the bag and tied it off when he yells up for me to look down. Mike was clipping up the bolts with aid slings, pushing one jumar up the rope as a backup. He wanted to stop at this great spot and take a photo.”
Jerry sounded unsure about what followed, so the details are soft. Apparently, Blake stopped just below Jerry’s belay, standing on a tattered sling threaded through an original Warren Harding bolt, and started framing the pic as Jerry, looking straight down, leaned back from the anchor for a hero shot.
The only written report I found was from Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite, co-written by then-park-ranger “Butch” Farabee Jr. The summit bolt ladder was 16 years old, the write-up reminded, and when Blake put his full weight on one of the final bolts, “ … it gave way, yanking out of the wall.”
The moment the bolt pulled, Blake must have wrenched onto his one jumar (a dodgy technique that betrayed his inexperience) and it popped off the rope. Because Blake hadn’t tied in short, Volger watched him free fall to the end of the line, “which severed against some unknown salient on the face,” wrote Farabee. “Literally within feet of finishing a Grade VI route, Blake fell 3,000 feet off El Capitan all the way to the base of the Dawn Wall.” And Jerry Volger watched him go the whole way. I only caught the ending.
“What happened next?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” said Jerry. He looked old and vacant. “Next thing I remember was meeting some hikers on the Falls Trail, five or six miles away.”
We sat silently, sipping our coffee. Rilke said that a ghost’s greatest fear is aloneness, and I wondered if Blake was still holding Jerry hostage. The thought didn’t feel strange because the whole encounter ran like a hallucination. I shifted focus to those final moments on the bolt ladder, scrambling for solid ground.
Shortly after the accident, rangers and several climbers from the rescue site had humped up to the summit, roped down and inspected the last belay. The haulbag, I was told, still hung off the bolts, as did Jerry’s gear, including a ragged end of lead rope dangling in the void.
“You must have untied and soloed to the top,” I said.
After he’d just watched Blake go the distance, those last friction moves must have felt lethal in lug-soled Robbins boots.
“It’s all a blank,” said Jerry, staring at nothing. Part of him had never gotten off that bolt ladder, the part he couldn’t remember. “After the accident, I struggled,” he said. “Finally a friend told me I’d had a shock and had to rest.” Jerry never climbed again.
I kept talking but I’ve no idea for how long, and whatever Jerry said is lost to me now. The same gravity that had pulled two strangers together had hurled a teenaged climber to the ground, merciless fallout from a force so weak that scientists can barely measure it. Yet it took all of our words and silences to finally get the measure of our experience, and the ghost of Michael Blake, no longer alone through our remembering. Slowly, without us noticing, Jerry and I were just a couple of people talking to each other.
When the bill came, I asked the waitress to take a picture of us with my cell phone. Later, at home, when I studied the photo, nothing in either of our faces suggested the climb that took 43 years to finally be over.
John Long is a Senior Contributing Editor for Rock and Ice.