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The Long Road Back, 2/17/08

By Jim Herson

In his seminal narrative "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", Sack provocatively probes the depths of the human mind, if not the human condition itself. And yet it is eclipsed by the complete neurological meltdown captured in his mind numbing sequel "The Man Who Mistook His Climbing Partner for An El Cap Vet."

In retrospect modern medicine never stood a chance. For 18 grueling months Alameda County's best cardiologists, endocrinologists, neurologists, virologists, epidemiologists, and aromatherapists, could offer Greg Murphy no hope:

His mono-on-steroids-turbo-virus literally laid him flat while his pulse randomly and repeatedly spiked between 40 & 180. Fortunately Annie, who had been running in hyper-drive forever, never bothered looking back to reflect on single motherhood while Greg lay helplessly on the floor. His children, however, did not escape unscathed as a crushed Peter once sadly lamented "My dad's no fun. You can't even jump on his spleen anymore."

But the full devastating blow of Greg's debilitating virus is just now being felt -- unfortunately by his climbing partners.

Junction Interstate 5 North and CA state route 120 East hasn't always been the mainstay of the climbing epic genre that it is now. Greg has successfully navigated this well signed, well lit, gentle right merge well over 500 (minus one now) times over his 30 year Valley career. While you wrap your mind around that bit of mental implosion be careful not to hurt yourself visualizing blowing through that quiet, quaint little country hamlet of Stockton, oblivious to its pulsating neon blinding glow. Or the cognitive dissonance required to not be knocked conscious by the fragrance of Lodi. To his credit though, he did puzzle over the disturbing lack of 3000' granite monoliths on the "Welcome to Sacramento" sign.

Now I know what you're thinking and I so totally agree. I certainly wouldn't have believed it myself had I not been driving.

Admittedly I was a bit off my game. The necessity of aggressive early intervention, required well before his current medical condition, has always exhausted me. Forgetting his wife what's her name or joy riding to Sacramento wasn't, to be fair, all that out of the norm. Spacing on the coffee cone, though, should have fired off all kinds of red flags!!! Thank goodness for the Chevon paper disposable oil funnels without which a distraught Greg could easily have landed us at the Oregon border.

From Sacramento things rapidly deteriorated.

Leaving behind one heck of a carbon footprint for a Valley trip, we eventually rolled in for an excellent night's sleep even if my pillow didn't have its usual fluff. I was, though, surprised to discover that bivying in the snow with a sleeping bag was rather more pleasant than bivying in the snow without a sleeping bag. No, I will not elaborate.

The tense situation got tenser the next morning when Greg forgot the alarm. And then -- oh my goodness -- he forgot his coffee cup! Whatever virus laid waste to his mind and body I naively believed I could deal with. But climbing with an uncaffeinated Greg was uncharted territory and just plain nuts! Quickly we tried to defuse the situation with a make-shift water bottle which worked for a moment until disaster struck:

That certainly was the tipping point for any climbing that day. Dejected, we headed to the Ahwahnee for a complimentary cup of coffee, registering a dismayed and rather biting complaint about the lack of take out lids.

With frayed nerves we headed to the Nose for a run up to Dolt, a good welcome back climb for Greg who hasn't led in two years. But when we got to the base and found a bone dry, short sleeve, absolutely gorgeous El Cap day, the facade of civility was shattered and the fur started to fly! How could we so completely boggle such a perfect El Cap day!!! I retreated into my zen anger management brooding cocoon while Greg set off to link the first two pitches.

With frightening ease he somehow managed to surpass the surreal "Welcome to Sacramento" moment when he called down:

"Uh, where's pitch two?"

"Oh I don't know. Have a look-see at the line straight up that you took the last FORTY times!!"

"Uh, watch me, I'm out of gear."

I so desperately wanted my brain back. Greg dumped his entire rack on pitch one and lost pitch two?!! Obviously I had mistaken this guy for the partner who used to casually link the first eight pitches of the Nose!?!

As though modern medicine was any match for Greg's condition.

From "Where's pitch two?" things rapidly deteriorated.

After simul-climbing the entire first pitch I pointed out that his rope was short. "No it's not!" OK, whatever, El Cap grew. After simul-climbing the third pitch I mentioned that his rope was short. "It is not!" [As an aside when Greg first taught Annie to climb he would link everything assuring a skeptical Annie that of course simul-climbing was standard operating procedure. She finally bought him a new rope because his "rope seemed so much shorter than other climbers' who get to belay at anchors." And she went on to marry this guy?!]

Having learned a harsh lesson about aggressive early intervention I reminded Greg at the pendulum into the Stove Legs not to just cut loose this time. [Greg was once firing the Nose and at the pendulum point, with the rope going straight across 40', he just, inexplicably, cut loose. Christmas came early that year for Alameda county's orthopedic surgeons! Of course the highlight of that trip was Chan's comforting words, while Greg gathered the shattered pieces of his ankle, "Uh, maybe if we wait a minute you can continue."]

Anyway I get to the pendulum point, lower out, and come up short. Admittedly I had an extra 20' in the belay from tying in short but the zen thing just wasn't happening and I certainly didn't have the ten second fuse to climb back to the pendulum point and free up the extra rope. And admittedly I had a 60M rap line on my back but lower out lines are such poor form and thus irrelevant. Even with somewhat non-optimally short fixing myself, I knew I could still do the pendulum so I just cut loose probably, in hindsight, giving a bit too much credence to Greg's rope length bravado.

Angular momentum certainly hasn't lost its punch and as I whipped across the face of El Cap into Greg's ankle crushing corner I was buffered by just one thought -- just don't, under any circumstances, no matter what the cost, shatter your ankle in front of Greg! Inexplicably I stuck the landing emerging with a mere flesh wound:

"You OK."

"Yeah, maybe you want to think about a real rope next time."

"It's not short!!"

Finally the zen gig was up and I couldn't take his yapp'en about my rack (or lack thereof) so I led the last pitch of the Stove Legs or, as it turned out, the last two after a meek "Uh Jim, the rope seems to be a bit short." Apparently during the last millennium when Greg actually climbed and wore out ropes he must have trimmed this rope and kept the short end. At Dolt he generously allowed me to rap first.

After a humiliating rap, leaving behind a gorgeous, unclimbed El Cap, we ran some laps on the Cookie just because we figured, having put in a few miles getting to the Valley, we should check out the climbing. And, just because it would be too weird not to, we did the last pitch by [working!] headlamp before heading [directly!] home.

There's nothing more uplifting than the indomitable human spirit triumphingly flighting back and overcoming whatever obstacles life lays down. For life is a journey. Sometimes a surprisingly long journey.


I climbed more this weekend than DADDY did.
-Connor - 02/25/08 12:52:24

yeah, whatever! oh, and the word on the street is, that salathe rig goes in a day
-rob "velcro" moe..., errr, rob smith - 02/25/08 15:22:07

no one forgot their shoes?
-John - 02/25/08 15:31:35

Where do I sign up to be a climbing partner of the Master Herson on El Cap?
-Sarah S. - 02/25/08 15:39:38

-ASjong - 02/25/08 15:53:34

I don't know about anyone else, but I, for one, find the pitch count simply inspiring. Nice work.
-Jeremy - 02/25/08 17:07:49

The story is not entirely true, my resting pulse randomly peaked at 220 or so, not 180; and I've only been going to the Valley 22 years, not 30. Oh ya, it doesn't really come across very clearly that Jim was driving and I was in a pseudo-coma induced by Jim's tales of potty training and public schools. Elliott R. at the height of his drug use only missed the turnoff once, and self corrected within 2 miles (not 60!). All in all, a great trip with a regretably low pitch count at 14.5.
-Greg Murphy - 02/25/08 17:15:27

Welcome back Greg. 2008 is the 50th anniversary of the first ascent.(Don't ask me of what route.- THE Route)
-Hans - 02/25/08 21:29:56

Nice work, Greg! Jim told me he had the Dolt Cart ready just in case.
-Jack - 02/25/08 22:03:45

Thanks for the entertaining read. Glad I wasn't there!
-Yosh - 02/27/08 10:58:01

I didn't know Jim stilled climbed. Welcome back from diaper duty! Anne told me your a workaholic now, is that true? Ask Karabiner and Camalot to help you and Greg the next time. They will soon be driving, man there getting big, fast.
-jcprenner - 02/27/08 11:22:58