Climbing in Sierra Nevada: the Prettiest Road Goes up the Cliff

This is not my image, but this is what we climbed

It is 11 pm Pacific time. I am dreaming of granite walls merging with the sky, of snow patches hiding from the sun in the north facing gullies, of boulder fields and screes, of the city of rocks, of occasional pine trees and small lakes glistening far below, of an adrenaline rush, of fear and excitement, of happiness. I am dreaming of mountains.

I started mountaineering late, in my mid-twenties. It crept up on me over the years, slowly turning into an addiction. Why do I climb, spending days and weeks stuck in the mountains and on the cliffs, suffering through cold and heat, bleeding, eating power bars, sleeping on the rocks and fighting altitude sickness?

A journalist once asked George Mallory (one of the greatest mountaineers humankind has seen), “Why do you want to climb Mount Everest?” 

Mallory answered, “Because it is there.” 

He disappeared while trying to climb Everest in 1924. His body was found 75 years later. Some time ago, I tried to explain to my mom why I climb. “Mom,” I said, “All the roads don’t lead to Rome. They all lead to a cemetery, but the prettiest one climbs up a cliff.”

At midnight, Rufus and I land in San Francisco airport. A two hour drive takes us from featureless suburban sprawl into the Stanislaus National Forest. Route 108 quickly gains elevation from almost sea level to 8,000 feet. The road twists and turns through the hills and trees of the High Sierra. We stop our rented Toyota Yaris at a random trail head parking lot. The air is fresh and light, it smells like pine and earth. We pull out our sleeping bags, throw them on the ground a few feet from the road and sleep. I take a couple of minutes just to gaze in the sky – no surprises here, it looks exactly like it should look at this altitude. Numerous stars blink and the Milky Way stretches leisurely across the sky. The mountains sing me to sleep.

A few hours later, we wake with the dawn – it’s time to go. We shake off the mountain dew (the real kind, not the sugary soda), throw our cranky cold bodies into the car and keep driving.

The otherwise meaningless town of Bridgeport guards the beginning of the path to our dream, the Incredible Hulk. Many climbers consider it to be the best granite cliff in the United States outside of Yosemite Valley. In a few hours, we are going to find out whether or not this is true. We drive a few more miles, park at the Mono Village campground, pack, and finally start walking.

A trail leads us through a landscape right out of a Hollywood movie, we walk by ancient pine trees to a lush lawn, over a few small streams, and up a mountain valley. The whole place is idyllic to a fault. Sierra air is dry, crisp and cool, a light breeze curls around my body and takes the sweat away. Rufus and I grin at each other like two morons – we both live in New York City and both sincerely hate East Coast summers, humid and stifling.

A forked tree marks the point where we must get off the trail and start bushwhacking. We dutifully follow the guidebook directions. We turn southwest, hop across some swampy holes and curse a few times when we miss. A faint climbers’ trail leads us up through steep sandy switchbacks. We start gaining altitude and we are breathing hard since there is a quarter less oxygen in the air. Being guys, we, of course, start to compete; Rufus wins, but barely. The steep uphill turns into a boulder field, and then into a scree. Huge piles of cliffs, loose rock and dirt hulk ahead of us.

In the front of the ridge, to the left of the valley, a 1,500 foot tall granite cliff floats in the sky like a triangle of white rock. I think of an ancient ship gradually submerging under the mountains, until only its sail remains. As the fabric slowly turned into stone, the sun, the wind and the rain failed to erode it. Instead, the elements only polished the cliff surface to smooth perfection.

I can see why Bestor Robinson and his friends, the first mountaineers to see the cliff, in 1936, called it Incredible. But why the Hulk?

“Well,” Rufus answers me, “there is this comic about a nuclear physicist’s alter ego. His name was Incredible Hulk.”

“Eh?”

“You see, the physicist was irradiated by a gamma bomb.”

“But, there are no gamma bombs.”

“Please, you don’t have to be so Russian. It’s a comic book. Gamma bomb, shmamma bomb, who cares? The physicist developed a huge ugly raging muscular bouncer superhero alter ago who went around smashing things.”

“Ah. I see.” Pause. “A smashing things superhero. I see.”

Soon, we find a perfect camping spot, flat and pretty, surrounded by rocks to protect it from wind. A small spring quietly gurgles a few meters away. Soon, the sun starts to roll behind the mountains. The Incredible Hulk’s west face turns from white to a gentle yellow color, aglow in the sunset light. It’s time to eat. A freeze dried dinner is clearly not prepared by a Michelin starred chef. The acrid smell and taste bring back my childhood memories of the organic chemistry lab at Moscow University. Fortunately, a sunset in the mountains can compensate even for a re-hydrated Thai chicken curry from Mountain House. And say what you wish about freeze dried food – since I eat it right out of the bag, I don’t have to wash dishes. We finish dinner, pack the gear and ropes, set up the alarm and go to sleep. I dream and drool about Positive Vibrations – the 1,500 foot mountaineering route that we are going to climb tomorrow.

The alarm interrupts my sweet dreams at 4:30 am. We have more than fifteen hours of climbing ahead of us and nobody wants to spend a night on the cliff. I can hear Rufus swearing in his tent. Up, eat, pack, go; the sky is already turning from black into dark blue. The timing is perfect. After half an hour of hiking, the sun finally arrives and we can see the whole of the cliff. The Incredible (and impeccable) Hulk soars above us. The sun shines from behind the cliff making a corona of pink light around its edges. The granite looks lovelier than the Mona Lisa; it is more alluring than Marilyn Monroe. We stare at it, study it carefully, compare it with the drawing and description provided by the guidebook. In a few minutes, we locate the route’s main features: a broken arch at the start, a short left-facing corner, followed by a long face next to a right-facing corner leading into a chimney, then another corner and then what looks like a wide crack but it’s too high up to say for now.

All these climbing terms… Isn’t it amazing how people always develop terminology to describe whatever they do? It may take a while for the jargon to develop. But, once people come to consensus about the appropriate terms, life becomes easier. When in 1929, Fritz Wiessner, the greatest mountaineer of his time, established the first alpine climbing route in the American North East (near Mount Washington, New Hampshire), it took him three pages of confusing text to report his adventure. A contemporary climbing guidebook provides a climber with three paragraphs of precise description for the same route.

At 7 am, Rufus and I arrive at the bottom of the cliff, ready to climb. It is my turn to lead and Rufus smacks me on the shoulder, “It’s such a good name for a route, isn’t it? Positive Vibrations. Aren’t you positively vibrating?” 

I look at my friend, “Vibrating, yes. Positive, I am not so sure about.”

I exhale, concentrate, touch the rock to feel its texture; the granite is smooth and rough at the same time. The rock feels me back, my soft sweaty hands pawing it; I wonder what it thinks about me. Too bad, rocks don’t speak to people. I feel fear, uncertainty, and excitement. It happens to me every time; it’s been there for fifteen years. I start climbing, nervously rather than precisely, feeling the granite, checking it for the loose rocks, my jittery fingers over-gripping the handholds. Rufus is feeding the rope out as I ascend. Fifteen feet higher, I place my first protection gear into a crack, clip the rope through a carabiner and, finally, my brain switches modes. I know the protection is reliably placed and the rope will hold me if I fall. I may get some scrapes, in the worst case break a bone or two. But, I won’t die. A thin red line of climbing rope runs down the cliff, towards my partner. The fear starts to abate, my fingers relax and my movements become less jerky and more confident.

There are reckless and brave souls, including some of the world’s best climbers, who eschew safety and do not use rope and gear; they call it soloing. Any mistake can be the last one – it is a long way to the ground. Every few months, climbing magazines publish yet another obituary. A couple of years ago, The Economist magazine, out of all places, published an article on John Bachar, an iconic American climber. He died as he soloed a route in the Sierras, less than a hundred miles away from where Rufus and I are now. Still, most climbers prefer to experience the indignity of infirmity rather than a young and healthy death – we use ropes and gear.

I climb to a nice ledge and sit down, my feet hanging 150 feet above the ground. Rufus is climbing below me and I pull up the rope as he ascends. The morning air is fresh and still, the sky is clear, and the mountains surround me on all sides. A few minutes later, Rufus bounces up the ledge and it’s my turn to go again. I start climbing only to get stuck just few feet above the ledge, puzzled by a slick corner.

Before I started climbing, I thought it was all about arm strength – an Incredible Hulk superhero bulges his biceps and grips the rock with fingers of steel to pull himself up. It took me some time to realize how wrong I was. Climbing is about figuring things out, positioning your body, finding subtle moves – it’s akin to solving puzzles. Here, I must think and squirm a bit. Face right – it doesn’t work. Face left – I almost miss a small hidden handhold, get my left foot almost impossibly up high and push my right palm against the wall. Confusing becomes clear, impossible becomes simple, and enlightenment is achieved. Slowly and carefully, I rise past the hard section.

“Good job, dude! Rock on!” Rufus yells from below as I smile, exhale, then continue.

An easier corner leads me to a longer exposed section where a fall would be more dangerous. However, I’m in full confidence mode now. I fuse fear and excitement to achieve maximum concentration. The danger makes me feel more alive. They call climbers adrenaline junkies and they may be right. Climbing gets me high and being on the ground drags me low. I don’t mind the dependence; I mind the withdrawal that comes when I don’t climb.

I breathe deeply and slowly as I climb up and rightwards through the dangerous section. A huge ledge, bigger than my New York City apartment, rewards me for my efforts. We steadily gain elevation but 1,200 feet of climbing are still waiting for us. Another challenging move comes – a long reach over a blank wall. My groin ligaments squeak as I split my legs across the gap. My left hand holds on to a tiny hold as my right hand’s fingers touch, crawl, and painfully slowly reach into the safety of a crack six feet away. The hard section ends and I am grateful to the rock for giving me a chance to rest. Rufus follows me; as my partner’s long monkey arms bridge the gap without any apparent difficulties, he grins at me.

Nice stretch, shortie.”

It’s my turn to climb again. Climbing drives all the meaningless thoughts out of my mind; the world fades away. I get into a huge dark chimney, press my back against one wall, my feet against the other and march up. Finally, it’s time for us to switch places. I’ve had my share of fear and excitement. Now it’s Rufus’ turn to go first – to get on the sharp end of the rope. He is a stronger climber than me and the upper sections are slightly harder.

We make good climbing partners. Like a good American, Rufus is always happy and optimistic – he is absolutely sure that we can climb everything that’s worth being climbed. Like a good Russian, I am sure that we are going to fail every time we get on a route. With OCD technique, I do all the groundwork, bring two guidebooks, check the information on all of the climbing forums, and optimize everything. And in the end, we push ourselves to the hilt and we win.

Rufus goes, like an Energizer bunny. Like we didn’t just climb 600 feet of strenuous, technical rock. He leads away and I follow him. We stem up corners, carefully place fingers and toes into thin cracks, stick hands, fists and feet in wider cracks, cross blank faces. Up and up we move, like two little clouds drifting up the cliff. The climbing is sustained and demanding. The rock never challenges us beyond our limits and yet we have to constantly maintain concentration. I lose myself in the endless flow of movement.

In a few more hundred feet, we turn around a corner and things change. A howling northwestern gale hits, trying to pry us off the cliff. I cling to the rock, like a child clings to his mommy. On the positive side, we emerge out of the shade into the sunlight. The sun generously shares its light and warmth with us, but it’s not enough to offset the wind chill. We stop at a small ledge to put on whatever little clothing we have – it’s getting cold in spite of our constant movement.

Some climbers are ready for the unexpected. They carry backpacks loaded with water and food, shoes, fleece, down, gore-tex jackets, sleeping bags, I don’t know what else. Like boy scouts, they’re always prepared. They work, they train, and they build character. And, they spend most of their time and strength dragging heavy loads rather than climbing.

Rufus and I are weak and decadent; we’re not interested in character building. Heavy weight brings us down. So, we climb light and fast. One liter of water, five granola bars, one hat, one headlamp, and one light jacket that fits into a fist size pack. It’s not much of a safety margin. If we climb slowly and get stuck on the cliff, it won’t be fun. We’ll be shaking in the cold all night; we’ll be desperately hugging each other for warmth. Thankfully, we have not experienced this intimate joy of heterosexual male bonding just yet.

It’s 5 pm and we’re almost done. We stand on the Incredible Hulk’s southern shoulder, 1,200 feet above the base. The wind has calmed down and cute plump clouds – not the thunderstorm kind, mind you – drift westwards across the valley. We let ourselves relax for a few minutes, finish our granola bars and wash the taste of nuts and honey down with the last sip of water.

We scramble northwards, along the shoulder, towards the Incredible Hulk’s small pimple of a summit. In an hour, we get to the final steep section. A four foot wide crack – a chimney – splits the small cliff all the way to the top. As I climb it, the chimney turns into a tunnel. I can see the light at the end of it, coming through a small hole. I have to take all the gear off my harness, push it through the hole above me and then barely, carefully squeeze myself up. Plop. I come out of the tunnel like a cork out of a bottle. Rufus follows me.

“Take everything off the harness and pass it to me.” I tell him. “You are bigger than me, you’ll get stuck.”

“I’ll be just fine, my friend,” Rufus says confidently. And, he promptly gets stuck. I laugh.

Finally, he gets out. We are at the top of the Incredible Hulk, there is no way up from here unless one can fly. We just finished the hardest and most sustained alpine route we have ever done in our lives. We pushed ourselves, we did not make a single mistake; we are absolutely awesome. Rufus howls a monkey mating call and the sound reverberates across the valley. Exhilaration overcomes tiredness and I dance a jig on the summit rock till I am out of breath.

People like the expression ‘to conquer a mountain’. I don’t understand it. How can a small sack of meat hanging off a few bones conquer a cliff? Mountains are oblivious of people, slugs, flies and other insignificant objects. I can’t conquer a mountain; I can only conquer my own weakness or fear. I can lose myself in a mountain and for a few hours or days become a tiny part of it. Then, somehow I feel myself stronger and more complete than I felt before.

Rufus and I enjoy five minutes of rest – we can’t afford more, because darkness will arrive soon. I wish we brought a flask of good cognac. We drop down the descent route – a west facing gully. It is steep and treacherous, full of loose rocks. We roll, stumble, slip and recover. We dislodge rocks and chase them, bouncing down the gully.  We try to beat the darkness. We only need to move as quickly as the Earth rotates – a thousand miles an hour – to eternally stay in sunlight.

We make it to the base of the climb at 9 pm. It took us twelve hours to climb the cliff and only one hour to descend.  For first time since 5 am, we can stop thinking about the clock and carelessly sprawl under the cliff. We watch hundreds of shades of blue and red blend into each other in the sky until they finally give way to the darkness. It’s been 16 hours of non-stop hiking, climbing and running. In half an hour, we should be back at the campsite.

I refuse to talk about the next two hours – it’s just too humiliating. It took Moses forty years to lead the Jews across a four hundred mile wide desert – at an average speed of a thirteen feet an hour. It takes me two hours to lead us in circles around a half mile mountain gully while searching for our tents. Finally, Rufus finds our campsite in the dark. We collapse on the ground, too tired to speak, think or eat. The black silhouettes of the mountains around us support the black dome of the sky. The moon hasn’t risen yet, but the starlight is so bright that I can see the gouges on my fingers covered with dried blood specks.

Rufus tries to say something but he is too exhausted. Finally he croaks,“Half Dome. In a day.”

He refers to the Northwest Route on Half Dome cliff in the Yosemite Valley – an even harder, longer and more committing route than Positive Vibrations. Most people do it in two or three days. Rufus has been trying to persuade me to climb the route in a one day push. I refused to even consider doing it before.

“Ok, I’ll think about it.”

“That’s my man!” Rufus tries to bounce but falls back on the ground.

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