Sunday, May 8, 2011


I have never been one to be afraid of heights or physically dangerous things. I have always thought it was because I survived two childhood diseases that I almost died from. After almost dying twice like that I found the nearness of death made me feel more alive. So, as a young person I often took physical risks to remind myself that I had survived and was still alive and that being alive was very sweet.

When I was under 20 I climbed many many high trees to the top where the limbs often got small and one had to be very careful. From about age 5 on if I saw a tree I would simply climb it to the top. During the 1950s safety wasn't what it was now (there were no seatbelts in cars but only in planes then). So a lot more people my age died all the time because taking risks was more normal than now in life during the 1950s, especially if you were a boy. It was a way of preparing potentially to die in a war and to prepare to be courageous and to prepare for possible death.

I climbed many high rocks (some of which I almost didn't survive) by free climbing them up to 300 to 500 feet in height. I found that climbing up didn't always mean you could also easily climb down very successfully. So, after almost dying several times climbing down without ropes I began to either use a rope or make sure I could climb down as I ascended a climb.

When I was 21 I had just broken up with a girlfriend that I intended to marry and was distraught. I was at a church conclave in the Mt. Shasta area in far northern California and I lived in Los Angeles County then. A kid about 18 asked me to give him a ride home to Palos Verdes, California on the coast within an hour of where I lived then by car. Since I was going to have to drive 10 or more hours alone in my then 1 year old 1968 Camaro that I had bought new a year before I said, "Yes." I was very non-hippy then but this kid played in a band that opened for "Chicago" at the LA Forum. He had a belt of about 20 to 30 harmonicas that he wore at times to impress people and wore bell bottom pants which I found kind of funny still at that time. As we drove back I let him drive my car for a while and he got his first speeding ticket. I don't think he got another one for 20 or 30 years after that. As we were driving we began to talk about hiking and climbing and I was really happy to meet another mountain climbing and rock climbing enthusiast like myself. If I had known he was a back country hiker and climber I would have more readily given him a ride to Los Angeles County.

I was sort of unhappy because my father and mother had moved to San Diego and my job where I had worked with my Dad wasn't the same since he left. So, even though it meant taking another day off of work I suggested that we camp in Yosemite and climb Half Dome the next day and so I would take one more day off of work so we could do this. (This extra day cost me my job) And looking back now I often wonder what would have happened in my life if I had just driven home and kept that job?

So, when we got to Yosemite we couldn't find a camping site so I drove my car up a trail towards El Capitan and put sleeping bags on the trail after walking up and touching the warm stone walls of El Capitan at about 1 Am in the morning. We were harshly woken up by a Forest Ranger that told us we couldn't park there and told to go to a Climber's campground that we were not aware even existed. So we went there and were grateful not to be fined for driving up a trail then. The next morning we drove to I think it is called "Happy Isles" to begin the trail to Vernal Falls and then California Nevada Falls and up the wire to the top of Half Dome.
note:If you key in "Happy Isles in Yosemite" into Google and also into Google images you can see and also learn more about this climb to the top of Half Dome. For a younger healthy climber under about 30 this climb can be done for sure up and back within 12 hours(So take enough flashlights and food and water). However, I'm told that now you have to get a reservation to climb it during the summer as it is impacted then by many tourists from around the world. But if you are willing to climb in the spring and fall you might have a more pristine and alone kind of experience as long as there isn't ice and snow along the trails. Then you need to be very careful unless you are an experienced climber for such situations because there won't be cell reception there if you get into trouble. Also, they take the right and left wires down during the winters so be sure when they put them back up for hikers and climbers on the rounded dome part of Half Dome. end note.

AFter we summited we saw girls our age(18 to 25) come up the face and summit so it sort of took a little of the wind out of our sails so to speak at the time. However, for me, it was great to have found a climbing buddy that went to my church.

Over the next few years we returned to climb many pitches on Sunnyside Bench and Star King, I believe it is called and many other climbs. When we climbed STar King it was winter time and I didn't take enough equipment (I didn't have crampons for the ice). So my friend has a great picture of me beginning to slide and almost die on the ice face of the dome. The only thing that saved my life was an ice axe which nearly tore my arm off as I dug it into the ground to stop my slide off of the dome.  One Christmas vacation from college about 4 or 5 of us only brought sleeping bags and plastic ground cloths and plastic coverings for our sleeping bags and no tents and were caught in a snow storm so after climbing all day with our hands bleeding from jam cracking the cracks of the rocks for grips to climb with our hands we returned to camp only to face a snowstorm with no tent. So we sought relief under my friends VW Bug which had enough ground clearance to shed the snow for us. Next door, someone in a large Winnebago was watching the Orange Bowl on TV which was hard for us to take. That particular night I was in too much pain from climbing to sleep and so bought some apple wine to kill the pain enough to be able to sleep.

By the way, all these memories from 1969 to 1973 were brought to mind recently when my wife showed me the latest national Geographic. It turns out one of her friend's nephews is on the cover doing a free climb of El Capitan in Yosemite. I looked at the cover and didn't see any ropes and wondered about that until I saw he was free climbing it. I thought that was a pretty crazy idea. But many young people do pretty amazing things and often survive their own feelings of immortality just like I and most of my friends did.

Although, I also lost a friend who free climbed Castle Crags near Mt. Shasta. So I also know climbing like this can be dangerous. And even climbing with pitons and ropes can be dangerous if you aren't wearing a helmet for protection if you peel off the pitch and fall and your weight starts pulling pitons in a zipper. (head injuries while  rope climbing are the most numerous while pulling zippers without a helmet).

Anyway, I hope these climbers feelings of immortality works for them so they stay alive for themselves and their families just like it worked for most of us back then in those days now 40 years or more ago.

No comments: