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A kiddie Salathe

By Jim Herson

Dec 5-7, 2020

The greatest rock climb in the world with the greatest kiddos in the world certainly makes for the happiest dad in the world! Couldn't have indulged in a better 60th birthday present to myself!!

It was obviously excruciating waiting the eternity until the kids had the proper grounding from which to fully appreciate the climbing perfection known as the Free Salathe. But the only rock climb worth doing deserved no less. That it was the heaviest bag I ever hauled and the most fun I ever had on a climb -- two phrases never before uttered in the same sentence -- proves the necessity of that interminably painful wait.

As a parent of a physics major you quickly learn to brace yourself for the onslaught of clever impracticality which flows from the seemingly innocuous phrase "Let's assume." Even so, I was shaken, as I unsuccessfully tried to jam 80L of food, water, and sleeping gear into a 70L haulbag, by Kara's "Let's assume a sterilized haulbag. Now we can fill the empty spaces with all the water!" Her worthless packing advice was well worth her delightful company and her zero tolerance policy towards her brother's "jokes". Connor just saw the Borat movie and won't shutup with his "I liiiike very much! High fiiive!" He ignores my desperate pleads for quiet but Kara, with a disturbingly ruthless glee, shuts that nonsense right down. So I finally got to climb El Cap in a delightful silence without the constant, heavily accented Borat impersonations.

Things got off to a concerning start when I blew up breakfast. To save us critical time in the morning, Anne had premade us a huge, magnificent eggs, bacon, and potato scramble. But thanks to Eric's slacking, we didn't have a pan to reheat the eggs! Eric's my enabler. Friday evenings I frantically pack 95% of our gear in about 15 minutes. Then, on the drive, I text Eric for the remaining 5%. Inexplicably, Eric was way off his game and didn't deliver the much needed breakfast skillet! So I reheated the scramble in its Pyrex container and then moved the heated Pyrex off to the cooler part of the grill which, a few seconds later, made for a spectacular explosion. It shook Connor, who was right next to the exploding Pyrex, to the core. But we're climbers so we picked out the shards and ate the delicious scramble. It was excellent!

Unfortunately, I had to put Eric on notice for gross negligence after, a short time later, failing to deliver a phone strap and, essentially, throwing my unbacked up phone off El Cap Spire. So there are no photos of the bottom half of the climb. Also, I have no contacts or friends any more.

The start was also delayed when on the hike to the base we discovered all the quickdraws had gone missing . Fortunately, they were in the car so Eric couldn't mess up that one too. The exploding breakfast and forgotten gear delays would prove costly though.

Connor led, Kara followed in style (no jumars or hand jammies, [obviously!]), and dad Sherpaed. The bottom 18 pitches through the Ear went surprisingly well considering hauling is the most awful and slowest torture device ever invented and needs to be immediately banned by the Geneva Convention on Basic Decency. Nevertheless, the days are super short and we got to the base of the Free Salathe crux, Pitch 19, at dusk.

Pitch 19 is family lore. Having been indoctrinated about its unmatched magnificence his entire life, Connor was amped to onsight his dad's defining climbing moment. The previous weekend we briefly checked it out. He gave it a beautiful, wholehearted burn. I'll admit to some wildly ambivalent dissonance. As a climbing parent there is no greater thrill than to watch your child casually dispatch your ancient testpieces. But I still have a needy ego and wanted to hear at least a few grunts while he hiked Pitch 19. Although he got high, and with enough grunting to keep his dad happy, he didn't get the onsight. He quickly worked it on TR and called it good which seemed like it would be a foolish and costly bit of youthful arrogance when he came back for the redpoint. Of course, you'd think by now I'd have learned not to project my outdated, crusty mindset onto his generation. They are unfazed and unable to distinguish the sharp from dull end of the rope.

So this weekend you can imagine my utter disappointment in Eric preventing us from getting to Pitch 19 with enough daylight for a good burn. Nevertheless, we were having such a blast

that Connor just headed up anyway. He got to the original midway anchor at a no-hands rest 50' up at the top of the wide 10c section. But it had gotten too dark to see his feet anymore. So he lowered for a headlamp and casually asked if he should pull the rope. It was late, cold, dark, and we still had a couple of pitches to the bivy. It never occurred to me that he was still going to go for it. So I stupidly told him to just yoyo it back to the midway anchor and continue from there. He then gave what was the most thrilling try hard I have ever had the privilege of listening to as we couldn't see a thing other than the occasional headlamp flicker and the end of crux panic in his voice as he desperately fiddled in the last piece of protection. It was a magnificent redpoint! Deserving of so much more than the short lived celebration it received.

Spacing on a headlamp when heading up the crux pitch at dusk, and thus having to take the redpoint from the midway anchor, was such a meatball move. I may have zero empathy for meatball moves but I felt bad for him as he had the unfortunate timing of having the brain freeze in front of his unsparing sister. Kara, whose executive function skills are off the charts, mercilessly shredded him for forgetting the headlamp. You'd think she'd cut him some slack for such a stunning, gutsy send. Nope. Not an inch.

Nevertheless, a very well deserved and hard fought congratulations to Connor on the 3rd free ascent of the Free Salathe crux! An impressive 2nd go redpoint as a high school weekender considering Ondra, and his adorable hand jammies, ran away from this pitch.

Yet such a fine effort was quickly overshadowed by a fierce debate over jamming orientation. Connor called down to Kara as she was working the crux that it was a pinky down jam. I corrected him that it was pinky up which triggered an entire evening of contentious debate. You try to raise your children well only to find out that they use finger relative location to the ground rather than wrist orientation as a jamming reference frame? What are they thinking!!! This is a fingers/thumbs/pinky/hands up jam. Period. It doesn't matter which finger is in the crack. But the kids, inconceivably, continued to insist that since the pinky is closest to the ground it's a pinky down jam. Huh? The pinky isn't closest to the ground in this illustration. What would an middle finger down vs up jam look like? How about a horizontal crack? Honestly, what do they even teach kids in school these days!

Of course, this trip had nothing to do with rummaging through dad's old stomping grounds. It was all about the excitement of finally visiting the historic site of dad's finest romantic hour! As an incurable romantic, a lifetime ago I proposed to Anne -- on the knee(!) -- at the most romantic spot in the universe, El Cap Spire! She said yes(!) despite some stiff opposition:

From: Greg

Snap out of it Anne! You were tired, thirsty, and lord knows your patience was exhausted (probably before you even left the ground). It's perfectly understandable that you would have agreed to anything just to get back to terra firma and unrope from the Ahab of El Capitan, chasing the white whale of his own making (Sisyphus comes to mind also). There's still time to reconsider.

However, should you decide to proceed, please reserve a nice tasty case of champagne for me; and reassure me that the event will not take place on Pitch 19.

With deepest sympathy,
Greg

So the kids were excited to visit this sacred ground. However, I could have done without their mocking reenactment "Will you be my #1?" while lovingly caressing red #1 cams.

Enjoyed a wonderful bivy on the magnificent El Cap Spire despite Eric throwing away my phone.

I'm not saying the Salathe is without equal -- it is -- but it is the only climb worthy of my most sacred attire -- my *free* Ben and Jerry's t-shirt! I worked harder for that t-shirt than any climb. It was "free" with ten *different* flavors of B&Js. This was in the grim, primitive days long before there were 50 outstanding B&J flavors. So it require choking down an horrendous pint of Chunky Monkey. I will certainly get onboard with hand jammies being free climbing long before banana being an editable ice cream flavor! I am very proud of my hard earned B&J t-shirt and so I was pretty miffed the kids, knowing it was my trademark Salathe shirt, snuck it into the haulbag so they could wear it on the Salathe!


The Teflon Corner was my Salathe Achilles' heel. Once I worked out the other pitches I was pretty consistent on them. Which is significantly different from linking all 34 pitches into a redpoint. But the individual pitches were never the issue. With the notable exception of the Teflon Corner. At best, I was 50-50 on the short but tenuous stemming crux. It played straight into my weakness as I am as supple as a 2"x4". I burned an incalculable amount of good will duping wonderful and generous partners up 24 pitches just so I could work through my fears and limits on this infuriating and exhilarating 15' of stemming 2000' feet off the deck. In particular, placing the draw on the 2nd bolt. The Teflon is bolted but placing the 2nd draw is the gear crux of the entire 3000' route. Connor is well versed in my Teflon Corner struggles. While I'm hopeless at technical stemming, it's Connor's sweet spot. So he was excited to try to onsight this classic and historic pitch. After years of anticipation, he finally found himself at the start of the stemming corner only to dejectedly call down "It has permadraws."

He knew the crux was putting the draw on the 2nd bolt and now he wouldn't even get a chance to try. A climber who couldn't do the pitch in the style of those before him, unilaterally decided that no one should be allowed to do it in the original style. And of course you can't even place your own draw above the permalink as it sets up a biner break. Seeing the historic first free route on El Cap turned into a sport climb was a devastating disappointment.

It's fun to imagine what Connor's climbing might look like if he had a shred of executive function. He's only heard about the tenuous glass stemming of the Teflon Corner his entire life. Yet, he packed a blown out pair of shoes -- with a hole in the meat of the sole which rendered it useless for smearing -- for the frictionless Corner. Because who would think to send a note asking for a pair of intact shoes to his friendly and generous shoe sponsor a few weeks before attempting a highly friction dependent historic testpiece? And then he was baffled he couldn't send it in the direct sun!!!

No onsight -- or redpoint thanks to the permadraws -- but a proud preplace send.

The pleasant nap waiting for the sun to go off the Teflon Corner destroyed our pitch count. We climbed 21 pitches the first day and 3 the second day. Which landed us at the excessively uncomfortable slopping Block bivy. A gorgeous view,

but it made for one lousy night of sleep.


The Salathe Headwall is such an unnecessary flex. Obviously, without the Headwall the Salathe would be unmatched perfection. But capping it off with the most gorgeous, magical, wildly exposed, 200' of sublime splitter tight hands to tips is just spiking the football and atrocious sportsmanship. But soooo outrageously fun!

Connor had TR'd the Headwall the previous weekend but -- ignoring dad's advice to sort out the lead before a push -- it was his first lead attempt. He got high on the first headwall but came off where, after an exhilarating 120' of electrifying climbing, the business starts. He fell, sorted it out, and then aided to Long Ledge so we could haul. Just before dusk we rapped back down. He gave a good burn on the long headwall pitch but as he was pulling up rope to clip the anchor, he momentarily panicked, had a brain freeze, and grabbed the anchor. He was pretty upset but probably should have chosen a more sympathetic ear for his venting. Because I was like, "Oh no, now you have to come back to redpoint the greatest climb in the world. Boohoo."

To be fair, his Free Nose didn't prepare him for the frustration that is weekender big wall free climbing. It went too smoothly. He worked out the cruxes and sent. That's not the way it works as he soon found out on the Triple Direct. He had the pitches on the Triple dialed 1.5 years ago. A year ago he fell past the last hard move. Then winter hit, a global pandemic, and absolutely devastating wild fires. Finally got back on the Triple last month only to waste a weekend behind a slow aid party preventing a refresher on the crux. Then on the push he was shutdown by a wet Great Roof. So he bailed to the Salathe and now couldn't close the deal on the Headwall. And while we were on the wall Yosemite re-shutdown with no overnight climbing so he won't be back anytime soon. A frustrating lesson in the reality of big wall free climbing.

Yet despite a fleeting disappointment, the kids couldn't have had more of a blast. Although it would be impossible for them to have had more fun than dad who, a week later, still can't stop smiling!

-Jim

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