All these years later the beating of helicopter blades still takes me back to 1997. Jimmy Ray Forester and I were on El Cap’s exposed headwall, on the Shield, stormbound on Chicken Head Ledge. Even today people still talk about the El Nino storm that so savaged the Valley that the park had to close for two and a half months, and dead fish littered the roadways adjacent to the Merced River. Staring out a small opening in the portaledge on Chicken Head Ledge, I had watched as a helicopter hauled a body off the Nose.
Eight days earlier, with five days of food and water packed, Jimmy Ray and I staggered to the base and jugged the ratty fixed lines leading to Mammoth Terraces, a series of ledges about a third of the way up El Cap, and the blasting-off point for the Shield. We agreed to take a few pins, RURPs, heads, and one hammer. The Shield, though rated a lowly A3 5.8, is said to be El Cap’s most spectacular and airy wall, and is so steeply overhung that retreat would be problematic. Arriving at Mammoth Terraces, we stashed our gear and supplies on the ledges and rapped.
At 5 a.m. the following morning, I choked down a bagel and a few espresso beans, and washed it all back with a can of fruit syrup. Fortified, Jimmy Ray and I started up Free Blast, the 10-pitch 5.11 slab route that is the standard free-climbing “approach” to either Heart Ledge if you are to do the Salathé, or Mammoth Terraces if your aim is the Shield.
We made it to Gray Ledges, pitch 14 and above Mammoth Terraces, where we retrieved our wall gear, by dusk. Exhausted from the tedium of greasy slab climbing, we crawled into our portaledge for our first night on El Cap.
We woke the next morning to water bouncing off the portaledge rainfly. The Shield Roof, a 25-foot nearly horizontal ceiling that is basically the route’s point of no return, loomed three pitches above, water pouring from its lip. The rain continued, but protected by the umbrella of the roof we forged upward in darkening skies and set up camp early under the roof.
The next morning we roshamboed, and I lost. Soon, I was aiding toward the Shield Roof. Nervously moving up on C3 placements, my first experience at clean aid—at that time the Shield had been done clean just a few times, and maybe only once—I was greeted with a cold shower as I pulled the lip of the roof in the unrelenting storm. Soaked, cold and scared, I clipped a rusted quarter-inch bolt at the end of my lead.
“Rope fixed,” I yelled to Jimmy Ray.
He jugged, cleaned the roof, joined me at the hanging belay and set off on the next pitch, pulling his hood over his helmet. Thirty feet of fixed heads and cams plugged perilously into flaring pin scars later, he stepped on a cam, a unit his wife had told him to retire, and reached for a fixed pin.
Looking up, I could see water running out of his pant legs.
The cam popped.
Jimmy Ray blew past me, zippering the pitch. His blue eyes locked on mine then he disappeared below the roof.
After 70 feet the rope tightened, and Jimmy Ray snapped to attention, spinning like a piece of gum on the end of the rope.
Now, most people in this situation would think about calling it quits, but the fall only inspired Jimmy Ray. He jugged back to me, grabbed our slim pin rack, and set off to put an end to what we had hoped would be a clean ascent.
I sat in fear, thinking, Shit, I’m up next.
Above was the “Groove Pitch,” an overhanging splitter seam striking for its perfect cleavage and so exposed it can scare the bejesus out of any creature without wings.
Jimmy Ray nailed to the base of the Groove. I cleaned, and when I joined him neither of us said a word. Although we had only completed two pitches, we hung the portaledge and sat, our feet dangling.
I was sick with fear the next morning. The Groove is a veritable museum of ancient RURPs, deadheads and mystery blobs pecked into the flaring seam. If any of the relics pulled, zippering the entire pitch was a real possibility, and I wouldn’t have been the first person to take that wild ride.
I led while Jimmy patiently belayed, waiting for a tell-tale sign of uncertainness, a cuss word or whimper of fear.
“How do you place a copperhead?” I yelled.
Jimmy gave me the beta, and I pasted the bits of soft metal into the rock, peppering in a few RURPs as needed.
Jimmy Ray, his hands cold from belaying, struggled to clean the pitch, dropping a few of our precious RURPs along the way. Above us were the famous Triple Cracks, three vertical thin cracks aligned so when one runs out the other miraculously begins. Like The Groove, the Triple Cracks take thin gear, RURPs mostly.
I handed Jimmy Ray our two remaining RURPs.
He tapped upward, arriving at the end of the second crack to find that the two-bolt ladder that accessed the third crack was missing, snapped off perhaps when some poor soul fell and ripped the pitch.
Days earlier when we packed we had been so sure of easy success that we left the bolt kit in the car. Now, unable to reach the third crack, Jimmy Ray was at a dead end. He lowered. We’d have to retreat.
We sat on the portaledge, processing precisely how we would get down. Time-consuming and tedious down nailing seemed the only option. Then we saw a team stopping at the Groove Pitch below us.
“Maybe they have bolts,” Jimmy said and the next morning he rappelled to them.
He soon jugged back to me, a bolt kit clipped to his gear sling. He also carried that team’s static rope. After hearing Jimmy’s screams when he fell on the headwall, the unnerved team below us said we could use their bolt gear but we’d have to fix their rope so they could skip that pitch.
Jimmy fired up to the high point, sank the first bolt and broke the only bit while drilling the second hole, leaving just enough of a hole to hook.
We got off the Triple Cracks as dusk fell. I led the next pitch as fast as I could, eager to reach Chicken Head Ledge before it was completely dark. If we got to Chicken Head Ledge, we had it made. From there a half dozen pitches of A1 and dead-easy free climbing would get us to the top. We’d be off the next day!
I finished my pitch and Jimmy ran two pitches together. Tense from days of being scared witless, my stomach gurgled. Beneath three layers of fleece, an explosion of diarrhea streamed down my legs.
“Off belay” echoed in the darkness.
“I just shat all over myself,” I told Jimmy after I pulled onto Chicken Head Ledge, reaching for the toilet paper.
“Well, I pissed all over myself,” he said.
We set up the portaledge and teased our parched mouths with the last of our water and a few peanut M&Ms, our only remaining food. We woke to the sound of sleet pelting the rainfly. Winds and intermittent rain pounded our shelter. Sheets of ice broke off El Cap’s upper reaches and sliced through the air around us. We put on our helmets and licked frost off the inside of the rainfly. The day slipped away as we slept to keep the pangs of hunger and thirst at bay.
We woke to a rhythmic thumping. By now we had been eight days on the wall, with food for five. I pried open the frozen rainfly to see a helicopter.
“Team on the Shield, are you alive and O.K., do you need help?” yelled a crewmember over a loudspeaker on the chopper.
I tapped Jimmy.
“We are good,” he said in his Texas drawl. “We got ourselves here, we will get ourselves off.”
I gave a thumbs up and waved at the helicopter.
The YOSAR member was a few hundred feet away, with a bullhorn in his face. “You are O.K. and do not need a rescue?”
I again gave a thumbs up.
The rescuer shook his head, closed the side door and the helicopter flew away.
It was then that I saw a line hanging from the chopper as it hovered over the Nose a couple of hundred yards to our side
A body hung at the end of the line.
Are we really o.k.? I thought.
Sunshine greeted us the following morning.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jimmy said and stepped onto the verglassed ledge to stretch his legs for the first time in several days. Without a sound he slipped off the ledge and plunged into the void.
I froze. Had Jimmy just died? Then the tagline we used to haul the bags moved. Jimmy had clipped into it before he stepped onto the icy ledge and was batmanning up it to the ledge. We hugged when he arrived.
“We are going to get off this damn route,” he said, tears rolling down his face. It was the first and only time I’d see him cry.
Jimmy chipped ice off our ropes while I collected meltwater in a bottle.
Soon, we were climbing again, struggling up wet and icy pitches to top out in the dark after nine days on the wall.
Everything he had including his sleeping bag was soaked. For the remainder of the night, we spooned in my sleeping bag.
Jimmy shook uncontrollably into the early morning. We packed quickly and headed down but after just 100 feet I collapsed under the weight of the haulbag, falling face first into a pool of water, too weak to get up. Jimmy rolled me over, and I gasped for air, almost becoming the first drowning fatality on the summit of El Cap.
Rapping and lowering the haulbag down the East Ledges descent, we struggled to the forest of the Valley, where Jimmy Ray tripped and cartwheeled, stopping only when he hit a tree. Blood trickled from his ear. When we finally emerged from the forest and arrived at my parked truck we were greeted by my friend Robert.
Alarmed by our slow progress in the storm, Robert, on our last day of the climb, had hiked up to bring us food on the summit. But as he wove along the edge of El Cap, he slipped on the icy rock and almost went over the edge.
“Marcus, I lost your keys when I fell,” Robert said, “and your wallet.”
Remembering that I had a spare key inside the truck, I broke out a small window, triggering an antitheft system with a kill switch that prevented the engine from starting. Thankfully, a group of climbers pulled over, offering us a ride. They dropped us off at the mechanic’s shop, now closed. So, we walked to deli but neither Jimmy nor Robert had money and my wallet was lost. Jimmy Ray asked if he could use the phone and called his wife. The deli manager, so horrified by our plight as Jimmy relayed it to his wife over the phone, served us a free meal of steaming pasta with chicken and marinara.
Jimmy Ray and I shared adventures for almost a decade until he fell soloing in El Potrero Chico down in Mexico. Years before, when we had been trapped on Chicken Head Ledge the two of us made a pact. We promised each other that if something ever happened to one of us, the survivor would bring the body home.
I flew to Monterrey and searched every morgue until I found Jimmy Ray.