Pooping in a harness –welcome to the Big Wall!
Imagine if you will, cocktail in hand, admiring the night city view from the roof-top bar of a two hundred-storey building, perhaps a descendant of one of the modern skyscrapers in Shanghai or Singapore. From this vertiginous height, the cars below are like pin-pricks of light, their meandering paths industriously ant-like in nature.
Then imagine that instead of being safely behind the glass, you’re now on the outside, hanging from a thin rope, 9.8mm across (not even 1cm). The wind is howling, and you can barely hear yourself, much less your climbing partner around the corner. As you look down the dizzying heights, you see the long plunge straight to the ground. Hanging there, your toes are going numb as the harness digs into your waist while you belay your partner. The same harness that you haven’t taken off in three days; the same harness that ensures your safety as you live / eat / sleep / climb / poop, slowly, painfully, inching your way up the climb. The sun is in your eyes, brighter than it has any right to be, slowly chargrilling any exposed skin, and your parched, dehydrated throat is dying for a long pull of water.
And further imagine that over these three days of living in a harness, you handle pieces of protective gear 10,000 times. 10,000 transactions of clipping and unclipping gear, putting and taking off shoes, tearing open food wrappers, uncapping water bottles, all while unbalanced and dangling precariously from a rope, deathly conscious of not dropping a single item you handle. And throughout it all, at the back of your mind, is the deep unease –a visceral, unspoken, unconscious fear of falling.
Welcome to the world of Big Wall climbing!
We all know what rock-climbing is from our experience at the rock-gym –an indoor wall, maybe two storeys high? Or perhaps on a top-rope, air-conditioned, with soft safety mats to step on?But comparing a rock gym to a Big Wall is like comparing running on a treadmill in an air-conditioned room versus doing an ultramarathon in the desert. Which isn’t to say that you can’t go fast or far on a treadmill –but it is certainly a lot less varied, less committing and definitely less uncomfortable.
The site of this particular foolishness was The Nose of El Capitan, sitting in Yosemite Valley, Northern California. Standing some 3,000 feet (about 200 storeys) above the valley floor(in contrast, a typical rock gym in Singapore has lanes that are 30 feet tall), it is one of the tallest rock-climbs in the world, and certainly the most iconic and monumental piece of rock. It has been described as the Everest of rock-climbing, but the numbers alone do not do it justice. The first attempt in 1958 was an expedition in itself, with 45 days on the wall over several months. It is so difficult that it has only been climbed without aid (explained later) by 3 people ever.
At this point, it is important to clarify two terms in rock-climbing. To Free climb means to climb with your hand and feet, using only the natural rock features (though you can have a safety rope). Aid climbing uses additional gear such as mini-stirrups that the climber can stand on. In both instances, you place gear into the wall that can take your weight. In aided climbing, you use the gear to help you ascend, while in free climbing you use it only as a back-up to catch you in case you fall. Hence, to Free Solo means to climb without assistance (Free), and safety (Solo). The opposite is to Aid climb. Given the attraction of this climb, it is a mark of its technical challenge and difficulty that only 3 people have ever climbed The Nose without aid. There are many people that can climb the toughest sections of the Nose, but few that can do it after 2,000+ feet of consecutive climbing.At the top end of human potential –Alex Honnold has just free solo-ed a route on El Capitan in June this year, which is an insane, death-defying accomplishment –3,000 feet without ropes, which makes our aid-climb endeavour look like a Sunday night TV session.
Hauling the Pig –what makes Big Walls different from normal rock-climbing?
Long climbing routes take many rope-lengths (with one rope-length of 60 metres called a pitch). A long climb in a single day can be up to 10 or 15 pitches long (about 500m or 1,500 feet or so of vertical gain, done with hands and legs) –so multi-pitch routes require climbers to stop and set up belay points at the end of each rope-length.
Big walls are then routes that are so long that they take multiple days to accomplish –just think of it as camping on the side of a cliff face for 3 to 4days. 2 guys and a bag (traditionally called the Pig) make their way up the 3,000 feet of climb. The logistical challenge is that once you are staying overnight, you have to bring food, fuel, water, sleeping bag and clothes in order to ensure survival.
Hauling the Pig up the wall is agonising. Let’s imagine again –you have a friend who wants to climb The Nose with you. A very lazy friend, who is rather overweight. He sits there, and doesn’t lend a finger to the climbing effort. He is also incredibly fragile, so he can’t take hard knocks. And he is so fat and lazy that he frequently gets stuck on rock ledges and corners. The instant you decided to overnight on a rock face, that’s when you signed your soul away (actually, your back and arms) to haul up the Pig. Oh, and the little green bag on the outside of The Pig? That’s our poop that needs to go off the wall with us, in the spirit of “Leave no trace” climbing. When the lines cross, when we forget the Pig haul line, when the Pig needs to be winched up, when it gets stuck, when your face is in the green poopbag, the Pig attracts the vilest of curses and swearing. But when night falls and we’re at our bivouac for the night –then the Pig becomes our best friend, the guy who buys a round of drinks for everyone at the bar.
The journey up The Nose
The 31 pitches of The Nose can be covered in 3 or 4 days. Usually, climbing parties of two would climb the first four pitches and leave the Pig on the Sickle ledge, so that they can get an earlier start on the actual climb. This was also a great practice run for the actual climb, especially as during the pre-climb, I took a big swinging fall on the way to Sickle Ledge. Talk about pain focusing the mind!Then we had a day’s respite before the actual endeavour, occupied with cooking, eating and drinking. Much like camels getting fat before the desert crossing. Or perhaps fattening up the lambs before slaughter, I wasn’t sure which. But behind the smiles and the pizza, my mind was focused on the task at hand and concerned about the magnitude of what we were about to undertake – after first contact with the enemy and the tumble I had taken, it was clear that this was a challenge to be respected!
Day 1 was an early morning start at 3am, then breakfast before driving over to Yosemite Valley. We used our ascenders up the ropes we had dropped from Sickle Ledge, and proceeded from there. Game on! In the early morning, the valley is quiet. We could see birds flying in and out of their nests from in front of our faces, as well as baby Peregrine falcons screeching and circling overhead. The day was burningly hot, and by the time we hit El Cap Tower, shade was blessed relief. (NB: We chose to climb in July, although it is the hottest month in Yosemite, with the sun mercilessly skewering you with heat, but that also means the least climbers. We’re from Singapore, we can deal with the heat.)
El Cap Tower is also massively large (by ledge standards), and that meant that we could sleep and eat comfortably. As my climbing partner QX put it –this was the Shangri-La; if we had been slower, that would have meant bivouacking at Dolt Tower, akin to Hotel 81 (a local budget hotel chain known for its hourly rate rooms frequented by patrons that have usually just met each other, where affection has a commercial value).
As we unpacked our food, the smell of fresh fried rice and eggs packed that morning wafted out from the Ziploc bag –simply heavenly! As we sat there taking in the car lights pricking the valley below and the stars above, this was a kind of blessing. Of course, we were also dehydrated, and rationing out our water. QX’s pithy description of our dark brown pee was that it was “the colour of engine oil”.
Day 2 was another big day, and it meant that we would undertake the famous Texas Flake, Boot Flake, as well as the King Swing and The Great Roof. Originally planned for four days, we were now planning to make it in three days, and either sleep overnight and descend on Day 4, or descend on Day 3 itself, daylight permitting.
One of the memories I’ll never forget is climbing the Texas Flake. Just imagine a three-storey piece of rock that has detached from the main wall, and climbing it requires shimmying up two parallel slabs of rock, with the back to one side, and pushing hard with the knees on the other – it feels like you’re using your knees to crawl up a wall. There is a video clip of me cursing and swearing for several minutes right at the start of the route, while making absolutely zero progress. I remember hyper-ventilating so hard as I struggled to climb that pitch, my heart-rate going through the roof!
The Great Roof is a massive overhang that is almost featureless. This is where I got a piece of remove it for almost an hour! Retrieving it as it finally popped free saw me let out a series of primal screams – probably a more jubilant moment than the actual summit. That night, we slept at Camp 5, which frequently had a strong pee smell, and on a sloping, incredibly smooth-worn rock where the constant concern was sliding off.
Day 3 saw us pushing off early. This would also be the day that we met the hardest routes of the climb, rated at 5.14 – Changing Corners. Having a chance to get close and personal with these routes of difficulty that I could only imagine must have been how amateur violinists felt if they ever got to handle a Stradivarius. As we made it to the very top of El Capitan, the vista suddenly opened up and we were suddenly on top … but not off the climb yet!
Our reward for reaching the top was to have instant ice-cream (don’t ask … the food chemistry of it is complicated), which tasted more like blocks of sugar than anything approaching ice-cream. We then carefully walked down off the back and made the final few rappels in the fading sunlight. When we were finally on solid, flat ground, the moment of taking off the harness was euphoric!
[The view from the top –with the same Singapore, SAF and Commando flags given by my senior office that have flown atop Everest, K2, the North Pole, Amazon and now El Capitan]
Chasing your dream –what kind of crazy people climb big walls?
One of the great privileges of this trip was to do it with QX, a former colleague from the Special Forces. We had both served in the Commando Battalion many years ago. Subsequently, while QX pursued his career in the elite Counter-Terrorism unit, he also nurtured his passion for climbing on the side, eventually leaving to set up his own guiding company.
Over the course of our two weeks together, amongst other things we spent much time talking about were the ethics of rock-climbing;climbing material engineering (chemical erosion, shear strength and failure of safety bolts); competition shooting, which, similar to climbing, is as much about psychology as physiology (he represented Singapore several times in inter-Army shooting meets); the business of adventure-guiding; the ethos and culture of rock-climbing in Singapore; the commercial prospects and destinations within South-East Asia as well as his guiding business and rest-house in Taiwan. There were also many fond reminiscences of the challenging times we had gone through in the Army. This meant there was a much quicker trust and common understanding of the modus operandi –essential whether in the military, mountaineering or management consulting.
The amazing thing about QX is not just that he is now a full-time climber, but that he managed to find a partner in Kelly, who is every bit as bad-ass a climber as he is (though not as good a cook, according to QX). As he says, it is hard to find a woman who is willing to share a tent together several months a year, as well as poop together in a harness. Climbing full time may sound glamorous, but the reality is that they live on rock-walls, and spend months on end sleeping in a tiny tent, pursuing their common love of inching their way up rock-faces in exotic parts of the world.
People often talk about chasing a dream, but few take the risk to give up everything and pursue their goals to the highest possible levels. QX is now taking his professional guide exams and is on his way to being Singapore’s first member of the America Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) – the highest level of international guide certification, and which I know from my time mountaineering as one of the most intensely demanding qualifications requiring several years of praxis and study. People’s lives literally hang in their hands.
[Happy National Day!]
QX says that he is not educated, “only” having a Polytechnic degree, but the challenges of his early life, the clarity of his later life-choices and the intensity which he pursues and executes them is inspirational. Without QX leading the climb, and sorting out the logistics, it would have not been possible to do this climb. I’m incredibly proud to have flown the flag high and done it with a fellow Commando.This was just three days of climbing, but more than 10 years in the making in terms of garnering the necessary skill and experience to do it safely.
Humans, not simians –adapted to walking!
Every time I embark on a new venture, there is always a whole host of pain to overcome, whether physical, psychological, or just the sheer lack of time. Sometimes this pain is new, other times it is a familiar ache.
In this instance, my renewed focus on climbing took the form of painful tendonitis in all the first joints of my fingers as well as my elbows. It was painful to hold or pull anything with my hands. Unlike walking or running, climbing for several days is not the natural state of affairs for humans. As a species, we have evolutionary advantages to marathon running, and theories abound that we used to harry and run game to our death through exhaustion. But as a consequence of walking upright, we have given up the ability to brachiate well – certainly not able to spend days on end hanging by our fingertips.
As I slowly built up calluses on my finger-tips, it made me think of optimisation and re-profiling. They say that London cab drivers who have memorised the taxi routes of the city have an enlarged rear hippocampus – the area of the brain concerned with long term memory. However, the sad part is that once they stop driving, it gradually shrinks back to normal. Similarly, our powers and strengths are perishable, just as the calluses on my fingers were getting thicker, they made me reflect on the calluses we build up as we become used to certain tasks, transactions or interactions in our daily life. I also think of the skills we give up wistfully, even though their exercise and mastery used to give us such pride, much as my calluses will fade after this climb.
After concluding the first day’s warm-up climb (5 pitches), my finger-tips were blistered. However thick those finger calluses I had lovingly built up on indoor rock walls were, they couldn’t deal with the extreme heat of the sizzling rock that were causing my fingertips to cook.So much for re-profiling and local re-optimisation – let’s worry about losing skills and capabilities only after one has actually acquired them!
Rock-climbing fears –It’s not the falling that gets you, it’s the landing!
The typical concerns for rock-climbing are all present on a Big Wall, just much more so. These include falling, as well as having things fall on you. One of the ledges I was standing on in a warm-up climb had been the scene of a fatality a few years earlier, when a huge piece of rock fell and killed a climber belaying his partner there.
In addition, on a Big Wall, one of the other challenges is the risk of a swinging fall. To quote Big Wall guru Chris McNamara, “if you fall on traversing terrain, you swing sideways which is the most dangerous way to fall. On a vertical fall, you almost always take the impact with your legs. On a sideways fall, you usually take it to the abdomen or hip after you first impact with your hands. You are also most likely to hit your head on a sideways fall.” And I tested the truth of these words on one of the prep climb days –I took a big sideways fall that had my elbow and back badly bruised, and my pant seat torn and butt bleeding. But I’ve always found pain highly instructional – that gave me great respect for the mechanics and importance of doing a proper traverse lower-out during the actual climb.
On The Nose, the most famed traverse is the King Swing.
Our own video is at the following links:
Macro-safety and micro-fear
At the end of the whole enterprise, QX asked me if there were any moments where I felt “sketched out”. I said no. However, there is a distinct difference between intellectual and psychological safety.
Throughout the climb, we always felt intellectually safe. We were protected, always had our harnesses on, and were never unclipped from the rope. We experienced no bad weather, and there were no desperate escapades with falling rocks or climbs into the night – macro-safety was preserved.
However, viscerally, there were many moments of micro-fear, when psychological safety felt threatened. When your body weight is under tension, the body feels secure, even if it means that you are hanging off a 1000 foot drop in mid-air. However, there are moments where you transfer your weight from one line to another, and your body is not under tension, and the guts don’t feel safe. The primate brain is saying – “don’t fall!”
I’ve talked earlier about how you probably handle gear 10,000 times. In daily life, consider how often you drop your hand-phone, or pen, or fork. Now what if your life depended on it? What if the piece of gear you just dropped could potentially kill someone climbing below you. And yet, we didn’t drop anything.
We I left stuff behind accidentally, but didn’t drop anything. The heightened level of constant vigilance and attention throughout the climb also brought a certain level of mental and intellectual stress. This got worse when wearing fat gloves – no butterfingers here!
Only on a Big wall –El Capitan moments
When I set out to climb a Big Wall, my only aspiration was to spend a night on a porta-ledge –like this classic picture from climbing.com of Royal Robbins on the American Wall. Thankfully, we opted not to bring one up, as it would have added another 10kg to our weight. On our second night on Camp 5, we were sleeping on individual tiny ledges that sloped downward and outward! Even worse was the fact that exposure to wind and rain and generations of climbers had worn the surface to an amazingly smooth sheen. After dinner, I had managed to fall into a slumber, but a few hours later, I realised that my sleeping bag had slid half off the ledge, with my feet dangling over the edge. Talk about a lack of psychological safety! Suffice to say, fitful sleep was the only thing on the menu for the rest of the night. This was clearly not an endeavour for those prone to somnambulism (also known as sleepwalking!).
One thing I’ve always found very troublesome, and occasionally dangerous, was the need to poop (whether on high-mountain or polar expeditions). On a Big Wall, this most basic of human needs was also challenging. Unlike pooping on mountains, where the poop freezes and has no smell, at almost 40degrees weather, this was an exercise in hazardous chemical containment. First you identify your ledge. Then you have to unhook your leg loops, and make sure you don’t mess it up. Then you lay the poop paper (think the brown waxed paper that chicken rice comes wrapped in), after which the deed done, there is decontamination with baking soda, before secondary containment in an air-sick bag, then a zip-loc bag before being sealed in perpetuity in the little green poop bag.
For myself, when I had to go, I was so dehydrated that it felt like I was pooping out a golf-ball, and it was so hard and dry that it started to roll off the sloping ledge that I was on. At that moment, the surrealness of the situation really struck me. Perhaps the sub-title of my future autobiography could be – Pooping in high places!
Given that the top of El Capitan can be reached with a bit of scrambling and strenuous walking from around the side, why would anyone want to take the hard way up? One answer is that it makes the ordinary seem extraordinary.
For someone who is on a low-carb healthy diet, a meal of rice, soy-sauce and salted fish would be anathema. However, after 12 hours of climbing and being slow-grilled in the unrelenting sun, thirsting and parched and rationing our water (while we still had a few gallons sitting in our friend, the Pig), a meal like that meant licking the bag clean. Sitting, there, as the sun-sets and lights up the valley – the massive trees at ground level were smaller than matchsticks from our vantage. Marcel Proust is often quoted that the voyage of discovery does not lie in seeing new vistas, but seeing with new eyes. A climb like this is both. It offers vistas new and unseen, and it also makes the ordinary seem extra-ordinary.
In the aftermath of the trip, my body is wrecked. The skin is slowly peeling off the fingers, starting from the tips, all the way to the palm. And after a month, the skin on my big toes is also starting to peel. The tendonitis in the elbow means that doing pull-ups leads to flaring pain in the joints, though that hasn’t stopped me from my usual work-outs. Getting back to base-line. Calluses receding. The memories only reinforced by the video.