Thursday, November 1, 2012

The music of pure granite...

Eichorn Pinnacle


South Face of North Dome - September 2007.
With Chris Mrozowski.  Photos of me are by Chris; the rest by me.  Essay finished early in 2008. 

                                  Twenty-eight years ago Frank Zappa released the album Sheik Yerbouti, with the classical masterpiece “Yo’ Mama” on it, and I have no idea how many times I’ve played it. It has accompanied me through my long journey in the same manner as a few other works: Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony has never once failed to lift my spirits; I can never resist singing along to Don McLean’s “American Pie” when it comes through the radio; and Grieg’s “Solveig’s Song” from the Peer Gynt Suite, played on a fifty-year-old, heavily scratched piece of solid bakelite, always transports me to a simple and beautiful world of snowy mountains and pure, abstract sorrow. And there’s always Debussy, dancing with the fauns in the morning. 

Vernal Falls on the Merced

                                    “Yo’ Mama” begins and ends with some lyrics which are not so much silly as perfectly absurd; they follow the main melodic theme without giving you a single thing to think about, so their only point is to fill space with voice while the real music assembles and begins. The next ten minutes are all instrumental: electric guitar, trumpets, synthesizers, what have you - melody is developed slowly and patiently, with glorious non-jazz randomness, and builds to the sort of logical yet only slowly unveiled, complex climax I associate with Brahms, and, yes, Debussy. As far as I know this piece means little to music lovers in general; perhaps it is too quirky, too unique, too disconnected with any obvious tradition. I associate it with leaping into the gorgeous unknown, maybe into Petty’s Great Wide Open, on an aesthetic level. And maybe it’s just ear candy and I have na├»ve and simplistic tastes - I just don’t care. More highly refined aesthetes than myself may now leave the theatre and decamp to the nearest jazz coffee joint.

Highlands near Cathedral Peak

                                   Sometimes songs play themselves in my head when I am leading a fine climb, and they seem to connect to the climb thereafter. Only later, several weeks after having climbed the South Face of North Dome (in Yosemite, opposite Half Dome, for non-climbers) did “Yo’ Mama” suggest itself as the proper musical counterpart to this climb: beautiful, complex, long, but still accessible to the merely mortal man, if he is willing to listen hard and stay with it. Here’s how it goes: 

                                        We got up before dawn and drove the thirty-odd miles from the Valley floor to the Porcupine Flats trailhead on the road to Tuolumne; we saddled ourselves with ropes and gear and walked the well-worn trail about five miles, mostly fairly level, as the morning rose around us. Then we cut right, down the drainage to the west of the dome, following a faint but unmistakable climber trail that meandered down through dry, scratchy, grasping scrub, along the narrow and winding dry creekbed. This section had been advertised as really nasty bushwhacking. Well, I’ve done worse; compared to real Old Rag belly-crawling, nettle-stinging, bramble-scrambling, rattle-snake-annoying, poison-ivy-infested, wasp-filled rhododendron sweatfests, it wasn’t real bad. But the predominant bushes we had to whack through were very grabby indeed, and we had small packs, with most of our gear on our harnesses - not the best strategy. Hence the last half mile seemed endless, as we struggled down, craning our necks to the east to find the elusive traverse to the base of the clean granite slopes we craved.

From west slope of Half Dome, we see North Dome across the Valley.

                                          Finally the pointless lyrics cease and the pseudo-trumpets and the guitar, spangled with a few sequins synthesized from the ether, enter the clear morning air and begin building a graceful substructure in the sky. We flaked the beautiful new twin 60s, roped up at the base, with Half Dome’s NW face glaring at us like a Paleolithic god from directly across the Valley, and Chris led off up a winding line on moderate slopes, on variable friction and a pure and smooth layback to a tiny tree. Protection was sparse but adequate; there are no bolts anywhere on this climb. I led the second, another pure layback demanding care and patience despite the low rating, as the granite was polished, white, unforgiving. I belayed behind a bigger tree and Chris came up, looking ahead apprehensively to the routefinding crux of the entire climb. This involves finding a way rightwards up and over a gigantic overlap forming a vertical wall just to our right of ten to fifteen feet; the rest of the climb takes place on the outer layer of granite thus attained. Chris puzzled out the few words on the topo regarding this, and went up the dihedral a little way, crawled up onto a large sloping shelf, and did a creative crabwalk back down a few feet to a weird ramp whose surface was hidden from the belay station; zipped up the ramp and over the edge of the great overlap and disappeared altogether. He had negotiated peculiar chord and key changes and broken out into unknown new realms, perhaps, from my fixed point of view under the tree. Much rope ran out fairly quickly and to my surprise I could still hear him call ‘off belay’. Having seen him do it, I did it a bit differently and more easily; the whole difference between the known and the unknown; I envied him having done it virgin, so to speak.

Chris on the summit of Cathedral Peak.

                                       But my turn came very soon. After a short friction traverse though the suddenly fierce clear wind driving down the valley (we had been becalmed in the lee of the great side wall for the first two pitches) I climbed a long easy crack, many feet to the belay, and continued on through with little pause, leading up the fabulous fourth pitch.

Sisyphus in a rare moment of levity.  Of course what he really needs is levitation.

                                       This pitch is clear trumpets arcing through the clear sky, pure fourths and fifths easily understood by a stone; the crack continues at a mild angle, jumps over a small overlap and starts to narrow, gradually but inexorably, offering fewer placements, and not far ahead I could see where it narrows to the width of a small woman’s little finger, then to the small end of a chopstick, and then nothing; I put in a final small wire, a #1 DMM, totally solid, and then I had to, so to speak, step into an invisible coracle, out onto the trackless, holdless granite, and traverse right, out and up what seemed like a very long way, to get to the large ledge and clump of bushes, that looked like a hotel with a nice champagne bar from where I was crawling, my mouth so damned dry. Each foot placement, as you may well imagine, was the subject of careful scrutiny; but I had enough brain function left that I began to whisper a silly little mantra under my breath, and it seemed to smooth out the little bumps of fear that could conceivably disturb my concentration. The mantra was: “Stick like a fly, boy, stick like a fly.” And in good time I came to the prickly bushes and found a fine stance and set a fine anchor and drank some fine lukewarm water, and brought Chris up. 


                                     Suddenly the music gets gnarly and proud; deep bass lines grind low but cleanly, without weird distracting textures or complications. We are faced with a chimney. It is Chris’ lead; neither of us has led or followed a chimney for decades. After some discussion we decide to try it with our bullet packs hanging between our legs, dragging on the rock, rather than risk other weirdness by hauling them. The chimney rises some fifty feet to an abrupt end, beyond which we cannot see. It is a somewhat flaring, mixed-technique affair with a tantalizing outside edge that only sometimes offers assistance; not a straightforward heel-and-back-and-palms sort of deal - not agonizing if one has done a few chimneys recently. Chris made slow but steady progress for a while, though at one point he said, “I think I’ve done some damage.” I should have asked him what he meant, but did not. After a complicated struggle he exited the top of the chimney and disappeared into the ether again; a lot of rope went out as he did some classic 5.7 laybacking in a good sharp crack to another big ledge. I followed, starting with my back to the wall and my palms on the giant flake that formed the chimney, and at very much the same spot where Chris had mentioned doing damage, I did some damage as well: my left palm slipped out and down just a little bit, and I found that a nickel-sized patch of palm skin was now flapping, attached by a thread, and the underlying flesh, though not scored or bleeding, was naturally a bit sensitive to the prospect of any more friction chimneying. Well, ok, suck it up, ya crybaby. In a few feet I had a stance and I got some tape out of my pack and taped it up, and went on. At the belay I saw that Chris had exactly the same patch of skin missing on the same hand, but he had not taped it, so we did that.

After the Snake Dike.  "From here we walk."

                                       Okay, kids! Got the nasty chimney out of the way! And it’s my lead! What have you got for me, North Dome? I’m ready! Oh, crap - another chimney, weirder than the last one. Chord changes upside down and backward. Have to start back to the wall and then switch around at some point. And on and on. Began laybacking, and the foot friction turned to polished porcelain. I remember putting in a piece from a very weird position and making a note to apologize to Chris for it later. It was a good medium-small tricam. As before, the pitch seemed to end abruptly at a turn in the crack into blue sky, about 130 feet out, perhaps; but when I got there, having had a brief reprieve from the slickness with a patch of good friction, I found that it just kept going. Not knowing from the wonderful Supertopo that most people set a hanging belay here, just before the 5.8 technical crux of the climb, (listed in Meyer's 1982 guide at 5.7, though) I just kept on plugging, thinking, this is harder and harder, and WTF as the kids all say. It also got slicker; the layback holds grew more rounded, and farther apart, much of the crack being invaded by vegetation. Some decisions made in haste and anger: what do I need more right now in this spot, a piece or a hold - choose one and choose it fast. The music working its way through problems and obstacles, toward an ecstatic idea, a connected and meaningful resolution, a place where much that had been obscure and gestating is now visible and takes a noble shape, something like truth. And here I am at a small overlap, still laybacking like a maniac, almost at the end of my 60 meters. 

p.1 of “Darth Vader’s Revenge”, 5.10a at Low Profile Dome.

                                       I set a hanging belay with two good medium cams and two questionable small cams for backup, and began belaying Chris up, thinking black thoughts about the hard last pitch that I thought was still ahead of me. I had wasted many long minutes all day on my sloth-like caution on lead, and now the sun is planning to set on its usual schedule, and no one can persuade it to wait even a half hour. We still have sunlight, but how much? At least I am sure that Chris will lead the crux successfully. The last few days have hardened him up, as he and I both harken back to our youth, and we set our faces against the menace of the granite and we just go on ahead regardless - which one must so often do, in this world.

Heading down the long punishing trail to our camp on the Upper Merced.

                                  He is halfway up, still out of my sight, and I am gazing eastward at the sky, over the great curving slope of North Dome, and a bird flashes up, soaring, a raptor, grey, wings bent in the characteristic shape of the peregrine falcon, and it curves in a perfect arc outward and back down and out of sight, and I don’t see it again. My black thoughts are gone as if they had never existed. Is there somewhere in the world right now that I would rather be? Is there something better than this - better than being young (sort of) and strong (enough) and at the summit of the sublime as defined by this moment alone? Certainly, there are equally wonderful things in the world, of various kinds. But they are all either in the past, having only a shadowy, pale glory, or in the future, having no substance but probability. This moment alone; this is all I have and it is enough, and much more than enough. We are soaring; every day we soar but most days we don’t know it. The gift of consciousness is to soar and know it, to ride the infinite wave of music and thought on the frail surfboards of our finite lives. Yes, just for a little while, but that is not important. The important thing is to fling your hand up onto a marginal hold, just gambling, make it stick, lock it off, and soar up the rock moment by moment. 

Looking west down the Valley from high on North Dome.

                                       Chris came up and we puzzled out the topo, saw that the rest was fairly easy, and he cast off and ran it out to the angle of incline where walking is feasible. We took pictures as the sun hung two or three diameters above the horizon, and walked up to the real summit and took some more. We had run out of water, but felt fairly good. At the summit we found three young men all dressed in enigmatic black turtlenecks; they volunteered nothing of why they were lighting a small bonfire up there, and we did not ask. 

                                       The five mile hike back to the car was not extremely painful; the stars came out and eventually the Milky Way and all the others shone as usual through the tall trees. The last half mile was not good to me; try as I would I could not keep up with Chris, and he was just walking normally. But we drove to Curry Village that night just in time to get a beer at the pizza joint before it closed; I was hobbling from a blister or two, and our palms bore the identical mark of the coin we had to pay to enter those realms; but that beer was very sweet. My brain was guttering like a candle, and I proposed a toast: “To not being dead!” But we were tired enough to feel within spitting distance of dead.

"No matter where you go, there you are." - Buckaroo Banzai.

                                       It was a good day. Is there something, really, truly better than this kind of thing, this life lived in the sky, on the earth, swimming in the clear stream of time?
                                       No: there isn’t.



About Me

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He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.