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All posts by Erik Eisele

Not Every Project Goes Down Easy

Not every project goes down easy.

Sometimes a route takes two tries. Or three. Sometimes more. Sometimes it’s days, or weeks, or months.

Then there are those that take years.

I remember the first time I read about Astroman. I was 19, only a handful of leads under my belt. I’d never been to Yosemite, or anywhere really. I’d grown up climbing on scrappy crags on the coast of Maine, made my way to the Gunks and Adirondacks and now was out in Colorado for my second try at college. But the plan was really to climb—Eldo and South Platte rock, ice in Ouray and Vail. School was an excuse to play in the Rockies.

That’s where I first I read about it, “The best rock climb in the world.” 12 clean, hard pitches up the steep east face of Washington Column. The Enduro Corner. The Harding Slot. First ascent by the Stonemasters. Freesoloed by Peter Croft. This was the land of legends.

Yosemite Valley

I, meanwhile, climbed 5.8. I carried around a rack of hexes like cowbells, and if there wasn’t some kind of sling running bandolier-style across my chest I wasn’t leaving the ground. My rope had never seen a leadfall. Astroman was a dream, a myth shrouded somewhere in the distance. I had no idea what such a thing truly meant.

15 years, however, has a way of changing things. Some projects, afterall, take years.

My first swing at the legend was six years ago. My partner Jim was an old school hardman, the kind of guy you want on an over-your-head mission. I’d climbed a lot of Valley moderates, long free climbs up to 5.10 or those with short 11 cruxes, and put few walls under my belt. Now I wanted the prize.

We warmed up, got ourselves reaquainted with the physical nature of Yosemite climbing, and then got on the Rostrum, the supposed training-wheeled version of Astroman. The route went, with Jim and I onsighting pitch after pitch of perfect crack. The 11c crux fell quickly, a few pulls on fingerlocks. The only ugliness came on the offwidth, which I grovelled up pulling on cams. It was a good reminder that in Yosemite the wide is often the crux.

We topped out and over pizza made plans for the main event: rest, then Astroman.

If only things always went according to plan…

We started early knowing the route might need a long day. Jim strung together the first couple pitches. Soon we were below the Enduro Corner, a shimmering dihedral of overhanging thin hands. I racked up.

It started well, I felt solid on the jams, stuffed gear as I climbed. But the Enduro doesn’t relent: 40 feet later I was still in small hands, then still 30 feet after that. Then it pinchs down. The feet were small, the rock so clean it felt like glass.

I fell. I fell again. And again.

Soon I was aiding, so gassed I could barely bare to shove my fingers into the crack. I was miles from the anchors. I shouted “Take!”

Make a move.

“Take!”

Make a move.

“TaketaketaketakeTAKE!”

And again. And again. The pitch felt went on forever. Barely a jam or a stance revealed itself anywhere.

Astroman. The stuff of legends.

By the top I was dry-heaving, my skin was in tatters. My tremendous rack was gone. I built an anchor and just sat down, dejected. This would not be the day.

When Jim made it up he looked at me. “Let’s do another pitch or two and get out of here,” he said. I nodded, still too tired for a discussion. We climbed two more pitches to the base of the Harding Slot and bailed. The greatest rock climb on earth would have to wait.

Fast-forward six years: February 2016. A group of friends are planning a climbing reunion. We met climbing in the Caucasus Mountains of Armenia and Georgia, and now our Armenian host was coming to the States to sample American rock. I called my friend Andre: “Yosemite. Will you meet me? I want to climb Astroman.”

It’s funny how an idea can endure, how it can stick in your brain through tremendous changes and come out unscathed. Barely out of high school, more a hiker than a climber, I first fell across Astroman, printed myself a rudimentary topo. Now 15 years later, just off trips to Cuba, the Caucasus and Scotland, I was itching for another swing. This, I figured, was my shot.

We met in Indian Creek, started the tour with sandstone splitters. From there I took a detour to Castle Valley and a quick run up the North Face of Castleton, then on to Red Rocks, where the Armenian (his name is Mkhitar, which he helpfully shortens for Americans to MAH-heek) and I ran up the nine-pitch Texas Hold Em. Things felt good. Astroman was waiting.

Erik Eisele Texas Holdem

But the Valley is not the desert, as Yosemite would soon remind me.

We crossed through the tunnel into Yosemite Valley at midday. We were packed and ready: I wanted a shot at figuring out the Enduro Corner moves, to treat it like a sport climb almost, so at 2 p.m. we started up.

It was hard, but not impossibly hard. I found feet, and rests, and places to jam. But I still took. A lot. The pitch would go, but it would be no easy feat.

The next day we came back, Andre wanted his shot. We were fired up for the top; after the rehearsal the day before we thought it might go. But it was to no avail. The Enduro spit Andre out, left him as smoked as it had left me. We climbed to the Harding Slot and descended.

No big deal. We had time.

A few days later we were back. We eschewed the second rope, got an early start, sprinted up the first few pitches and were soon looking at the Enduro once again.

“Go,” Andre said. “You’ve got this.”

I started up. The jams felt solid. I dropped in a cam, climbed, then dropped in another. I punched it, placing less than I’d like but enough to be safe. The clock was ticking. The first rest was 40 feet up, a handjam with a stem. I had to get there. So I went.

Erik Yosemite 2016

Over our repeated missions I’d discovered enough jams of substance to know I could hop between. It meant running it out a bit, but cams in amazing granite kept it safe. I jammed, placed, then punched it. Again. And again. Soon the end was in sight.

Then my foot popped. I was off, flying through the air.

“CRAP!!” I yelled as the rope came tight. “I wasn’t even pumped!”

It was a lie, I was pumped, but I wasn’t out of gas. Inattention that caught me, poor technique, not a lack of forearms. I yarded back to my last piece, got back on route and climbed to the anchor.

Andre was next to me a few minutes later. “Well,” he said, “what do you want to do?”

“Keep climbing,” I said. “I want to send that pitch, but we might as well keep going up.”

The fall, however, broke my resolve. We climbed to the Harding Slot, which I started up, but when things started turned physical I backed off.

“I want to send this thing for real,” I told Andre back at the anchor, “not hangdog my way up it. I want to go down and come back later.”

“Later?” Andre said. We had one day left, and neither of us would be in shape for a second go tomorrow.

But some projects take days; others, weeks; others, months. And some last years. The best climb in the world would have to wait.

“Later,” I said threading the rappel.

Dirtbagging, Deserts, and Disaster: The Perfect Climbing Road Trip

I stood by the side of U.S. 191 waving my arms. Another car slid past. Then another. And another.

“Damn it!” I shouted after the fifth went by without slowing. “Stupid!”

Rain was beginning to fall, and the wind had picked up. The clouds hung low over the mesa. The La Sals were covered in snow.

I was 25 miles from Indian Creek, 40 from Moab, and the battery in my Honda Element was down to Empty.

I’m such an idiot sometimes.

The plan was for a rest day. After three days of sandstone splitters my fingers were shot, my hands were raw and my arms were spent. I needed a shower, a refill on water, some internet and a grocery store. But instead I was on the side of the road miles from anywhere hoping against reason to flag down a pair of jumper cables.

Sometimes the adventure on climbing trips has nothing to do with the climbing.

Everything began in April. First stop: Washington D.C., the climbing Mecca. Andre, my scheduled Red Rocks and Yosemite partner, offered a session at Earth Treks and to let me crash in his spare room. After a New England winter of ice and snow it felt great to pull plastic. Humbling, but fun.

From there I drove on to Wilmington, North Carolina, for a weekend of freediving, descending like a SCUBA diver but without a tank, holding my breath as the light faded through the meters of oceanwater. Stealth-camping in my Element, eating meals out of Wholefoods, it felt like any climbing weekend, except that the worst advice you can give is “BREATHE!”

From there I drove west, the favored direction for the next six weeks. The first real climbing stop was Eastern Tennessee and two days at a secret cliff a friend was developing. “It’s a mix of the Red and the New,” he told me, “more technical than the Red but fewer stopper cruxes than the New.” An oath of secrecy later I found myself below a 40-meter high cliffband stretching from hollow to hollow, perfect orange rock towering above.

“This route is five stars,” my friend told me again and again. He was right. Beautiful sandstone, and to ourselves. We put up a new 5.12 with a fun bouldery crux near the ground and bolt after bolt of devious climbing above, 16 bolts of perfection. The Southeast is still full of hidden gems.

East coast sending on the first leg of my cross country  road trip

East coast sending on the first leg of my cross country road trip

But I had friends to meet in the Red, as well as a project to attend to.

For Northeasterners the RRG is a transition ground, the place to switch from pulling on ice tools to grabbing rock holds. It’s a spring pilgrimage, one seldom observed fit for rock climbing.

A few years ago I caught a glimpse of Cell Block Six, a soaring line on the Midnight Surf wall. It called to me, a perfect transition route—big holds, big moves, lots of airtime—it seemed to shout “Welcome to sport climbing season!” I wanted on.

So day one: Warm up slow on 5.10, then head to where the cliff arches at angles that block the sun. Get on the project. Fall all over the project.

Day two: Recover from Day one.

It took two days of gravity testing, pizza dinners and sandstone buckets to clip the chains, but a pair of handjams after the crux unlocked the route. Desperate through the crux, I recovered enough in those jams to feel like the chains came too soon. The transition to rock season was on!

With the project in my pocket I turned west again, to Indian Creek. It’d been 13 years since I’d climbed in the Creek, I was due a visit. And after a few years mostly sport climbing the idea of splitters beckoned. Last fall I was part of an AAC exchange to the Caucus Mountains, climbing rock routes and alpine peaks in Armenia and Georgia. Our host was a strong and energetic Armenian named Mkhitar, and after the trip our group wanted to return the hosting favor. Mkhitar accepted an invitation from exchange member and famous alpinist Jim Donini to take a month-long tour of American rock, from the Creek to Red Rocks to Yosemite to the Black Canyon. Anyone who wanted to join was welcome to tag along.

Retreating after pitches upon pitches of Indian Creek handjamming

Retreating after pitches upon pitches of Indian Creek handjamming

That’s how I landed on the side of the U.S. 191 waving in vain at passing cars.

The Creek is buried in technological darkness. Indeed, that is part of its appeal—no services, no cell coverage, just coyotes and varnished sandstone. The camping is primitive, the climbing superb. After the noise of Miguel’s and 1,000 miles of highway I sunk into that darkness with relish.

Jim, Mkhitar and a small crew had already staked out a camp and were on the rocks when I arrived. I spilled out of my Element and roped up, barely 7 hours out of Denver. Mkhitar’s face was stretched thin in a smile as he looked at the walls surrounding him. It was going to be a good trip.

But two days later after pitch after pitch of steep sandstone I needed a break. I tumbled back into my car and headed north. Rain spat as I climbed out of the canyon to the plateau, occasionally unleashing in waves, then quiet. I turned on my wipers, then my headlights. Red mud rinsed the land around me.

The first cell signal popped up a short distance from where the road to Indian Creek intersects the highway. My phone buzzed to life; emails downloading, text messages vibrating. I pulled over and switched off the car, leaving the key turned one click to listen to the radio. Three days away and a lot had happened; I started sorting through the layers.

Half-an-hour later, still sitting by the side of the road replying to a Facebook messages, the radio went silent. My phone battery indicator went from green to white.

“NO!” I shouted, suddenly realizing I’d left my headlights on. “NO! You idiot! What are you doing?!”

Half-an-hour—roughly the time it would have taken to get to Moab, where I could have done all of this internetting in the library, surrounded by central air, electric outlets and comfy seats. Instead I was now the proud owner of a dead Honda, parked in a patch of mud along the highway, rain moving in.

I tried the key: Nothing but clicks. I tried waiting a few minutes, hoping maybe the battery would recover enough residual charge, but I was too panicked to let it sit more than 90 seconds. More clicks. Finally I accepted what I had done, what I would have to do. I pulled on a fleece and stepped out into the spitting drops.

The first dozen cars didn’t even slow. Then came the fleet of rentals. “No,” the driver’s would say, one after another, “I don’t have cables. This is a rental car.” One guy offered to send help when he got to Monticello, but that sounded complex and expensive. “At least let me call you when I get there,” he said. “If you are still here I can send someone.”

I relented and gave him my phone number.

Drivers would see other cars pulled over and would pull over themselves, but they too had nothing to jump a battery with. (I, of course, was in no position to throw stones—where were my jumper cables?) I started to grow worried this could get expensive. I had cell coverage. I could call a towing service for a jump. But that felt like expedition tactics, resorting to aid climbing when I had set out for a free ascent.

I have learned that sometimes you can tell a car that has jumper cables. Sometimes the giveaway is the vehicle, other times it’s the driver. This time it was both. Truck. White. Extracab. With a diamond plate toolbox in the bed. A Utahn in his 40s with sandy hair, a mustache and well-worn Levi’s.

He was coming from the other direction. He slowed down and made a u-turn, pulled over all the way to the dirt embankment, letting his truck handle the terrain. He drove towards me, standing small against the desert, but stopped a few yards away. He was on his phone, and he just kept talking. He held up a finger. “One minute,” he seemed to be saying, “I’ll take care of this in one minute.”

Other cars were streaming past. I could be out there flagging them down, I thought. But I had a feeling.

He hung up the phone and rolled down his window.

“Do you have jumper cables?” I asked. The feeling was growing.

He paused, answered slow.

“Yep.”

The feeling was hope. “Can you give me a jump?”

Another pause.

“Yep.”

Another handjam rest. Maybe this crux would go too.

 

Alias

Erik Eisele

Hometown

North Conway, NH

Motivation to Climb

Two things draw me to climbing: movement, and fear. The movement is like meditation—over ice, rock or in the mountains, the rhythm of climbing draws me into the present moment. It is calming, familiar, a chance to catch my breath. It centers me. I go to the cliff the way some people go to church. I think most climbers do. And the fear. I hate falling. I hate runouts, small gear, objective hazards and ice screws. But they are part of climbing, part of what makes it amazing. Fear is a limit we draw for ourselves, a limit without no foundation. In climbing I get the opportunity to snarl back at fear, to prove it does not own me, if only for a moment. Those moments are perfect.

Most Memorable Climb

Shockley's Ceiling is only 5.6, but I was new to leading, barely a 5.6 climber. I shoved a nest of cams below the roof (were any of them any good?) and started wrestling with the lip. I groped for holds with one leg stuffed up to my knee in a nearby crack; if I fell I would tear my ACL. I could feel my hands slipping. I tried chalking up, but neither hand had the strength. If I was going to move, it had to be NOW. When I stood on the lip, the crux below me, I felt like I'd done something remarkable. It was one of my first multi-pitch leads, and I'd made the moves clean. I'd been terrified, but I moved upwards anyway. Since then I've climbed harder routes, many of them amazing, but in a sense that first foray into the unknown tasted sweetest. Everything after has been an attempt to recapture that feeling.

Favorite Climbing Spot

Cathedral Ledge — best single crag in the world for both rock and ice climbing Shagg Crag — the perfect sport crag Yosemite Valley — because obviously

Bio

I was a teenager when I fell in love with mountains. Something about the freedom they offered called to me, so rather then go to college I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail. That launched my habit of wandering. It has not yet ebbed. I'll climb anything—rock, ice, sport, mixed, boulders, mountains, bigwalls. To me, it's all climbing. Even skiing is climbing. There are no rules, just move. But I'm most at home on trad protected mixed terrain. Or in flipflops at the base of a sport crag. I work as a writer and guide, and I spend as much of the year traveling as I do at home. I love my passport, and I'm doing my best to fill it. I used to have a desk job as a newspaper reporter, the most interesting job in the world, but now I do my writing from the road. Which, as it turns out, lends itself well to climbing.

[full bio]

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