It’s 4 a.m. and I’m wide awake, coming round with a start in a hot motel in Mariposa, my first thought being “She did it!”
Ella, my 13-year-old daughter, is sleeping in the bed next to me like only a teenager could, a sleep so deep only an earthquake (or a blast of Two Door Cinema Club) could break, and she deserves it; last night she was sleeping on El Cap, having climbed Tangerine Trip over four hot days and nights. If there’s any teenager on the planet who deserves to sleep in today it’s Ella.
I’m sure for everyone who thinks its amazing that someone so young could find the strength to climbed El Cap (both mental and physical – as she had to jumar free-hanging ropes for 700 meters), there will be those that will be appalled that a father would risk his child’s life in such away. To be honest, I find myself seeing it from both sides, and this adventure has been one of great soul searching and stress, as well as laugher and moments that made me want it cry with joy.
I guess I should start at the beginning.
For many years I’ve brought my kids Ella and Ewen along to my slideshows, as well as events like the Kendal Mountain Film festival. They’ve sat through dozens of talks, sometimes even laying on the stage at my feet, chuckling away. At first I felt a bit uneasy, after all do I want my kids listening to all these tales of daring do? But climbing and the rewards and risks of that life make me who I am, and the lessons it has tough me are lessons I’ve tried to pass on to my kids. Adventure is in my DNA and so it’s in theirs also, and so they should see what I do when I’m away and understand both the risks and rewards of striving for impossible things.
I’ve never been a pushy climbing parent, and always wanted to leave it up to them to decide how to explore the boundaries of themselves, exposing them to wilderness and danger the way my dad did, giving the impression of both, while keeping them on a short leash.
One question that kept coming up at talks was “when are you going to climb El Cap with your kids?” to which I’d rely “Oh, not until Ella’s 13,” thinking the youngest girl to climb El Cap was that age (turns out, at the time the record was 14, but a 9-year-old girl has climbed it since). This always got a laugh, mainly because it was obviously a crazy idea. Then Ella turned 13, and she asked the question, “So, Dad, when are we going to climb El Cap?”
My first reaction was “Why not?” Having climbed it nearly 20 times (soloed it 3 times, climbed it in 18 hours, spent 11 days doing its hardest route and nearly two months hanging from it) I thought I knew enough to keep her safe. Also having climbed it with two people with disabilities (Karen Darke and Phil Packer) I also understood just what was possible. When you’ve seen a woman do 4,000 pull-ups and use only her arms (and nerve) to climb El Cap, you know that it would be easier for a 13 year old – well physically at least (if not easy).
And so I said, “Maybe we’ll go in the spring holidays next year,” having no real plans to really plan on doing so.
But Ella is persistent, and now when we went climbing she would want to learn how to jumar, how to abseil, ask me how she would go to the toilet “when we” (not “if we”) climbed El Cap.
Very soon her mum (my long-suffering ex-wife) said, “What’s this about Ella climbing El Cap?” to which I relied “oh it’s just a phase – she’s soon forget about it,” thinking that at 13 she’d soon be thinking more about boys then big walls.
But like most adults, I underestimated my child.
She had made it her goal to climb El Cap, and I realized that to let her down was something I couldn’t do. I had to make it happen, no matter what it took.
The first person to be convinced was Mandy, Ella’s mum. I left this up to Ella to negotiate, knowing full well the persistence of a child is greatest force in nature to change an adult’s mind! The answer was a yes – but only on the conditions that she would be safe and that my mate Paul Tattersall was there – the only climber that Mandy trusted. Paul agreed to come if I could cover the cost of the trip, and so with much reluctance Mandy gave Ella her blessing.
In life if you set out with purpose to doing something amazing you invariably find that circumstance will lend a hand (always lived by that motto “act boldly and unseen forces will come to your aid”). The first thing was a talented filmmaker called Ian Burton got in touch with an idea for a film about climbing El Cap with an ex-Royal Marine sniper called Aldo Kain, seeing how someone like that (a trained killer) would get on on a wall.
“How about we took Ella along as well?” I suggested, and so the idea was born. Better still, Ian could cover all the costs of the trip (I had yet to work out how exactly to pay for me, Ella, and Paul to do it).
A date was set, and we started to train with more focus, Ella learning how to pass knots, wall safety, aiding, self rescue, cleaning pitches. She would have to miss some school, but permission was granted (that’s what I call a progressive school). The months turned to weeks and then days before we were due to go.
And then it all fell apart. Ian could not get a visa to enter the U.S. With no money to pay for the trip, it fell through.
As you can imagine, although she put on a brave face, I knew Ella was deeply disappointed.
I guess before then I’d just been going along with the notion of climbing El Cap with her, but now I knew it was more just a climb, it was stepping up and fighting to make it happen, no matter what.
We’d had had a plan to climb as a five-person team, with Paul leading, Aldo cleaning (whom I’d yet to meet but knew as a safety rigger – and trained killer – he would be invaluable on the wall), me hauling, Ella jugging, and Ian filming. The technique was based on the Russian four-person big wall system (two pushing up ropes, two hauling up kit behind), which although heavy was very safe.
Telling Ella that we’d not be going was hard, and harder when she said that Mandy had said I’d probably not do it anyway, “Well, Dad, you are a bit unreliable.” That was it, this was no longer about Ella climbing El Cap, it was about a father fulfilling a promise. (I only wish it had just been buying her a bloody horse!)
Again forces came to my aid. Aldo was happy to pay his own way there, happy to climb a big wall, while a check arrived for my first royalties for my book, Cold Wars. The check cashed, I spent the lot on two tickets to San Fransisco, showing the confirmation to Ella.
We were going!
And so two weeks ago we finally reached Yosemite, arriving at night, Ella’s first impression of El Cap being its bulk blocking out the stars, the border between wall and space blurred by the pin pricks of head torches high on the Nose.
We were unable to climb until 5:30 a.m. on the following Monday morning due to our filming permit, so hung around the valley doing very little due to the heat, the coolness of autumn still absent. In fact, I’d never felt such heat in Yosemite, even in June, the temperature up in the 90s. I began to wonder if it would be possible to even climb in such heat, as beyond the Nose the wall was almost empty.
I began to have doubts about the feasibility of climbing the wall, while at the same time Ella was chomping at the bit. She had begun to immerse herself in the valley, its strange collection of people, its names and rules, bus circuits, and cafeteria menus. One day I said, “Maybe if we finish early we could go to San Francisco and visit Alcatraz, to which she replied, “Can’t we climb Lost Arrow Spire instead?”
Eventually Sunday came around and I knew we just had to make it work, carrying 90 liters of water up the base (we planned on three hanging bivys) the night before. We set up in the dark to bivy at the base, dodging two rattlesnakes who were laid out on the rocks enjoying the slow release of heat from the heat locked in the talus.
Oh, how I wished I’d been cold-blooded on the days that followed.
As usual on a big wall with such a big team, day one was a disaster. We all jugged for about 100 meters, then I began hauling while Paul and Aldo pushed out the ropes. The weight of the haul bags (99 liters of water, four days of food for five people, three ledges, plus assorted crap) was insane. Me, Ella, and Ben were at the belay all day as I literally inched the haul bags up while being roasted in the sun.
I spent most of the first day either hauling, or telling Ella to drink, paranoid about her getting heat stroke. Finally the bags arrived, but so did the night, meaning we bivied where we’d been all day, only hoping tomorrow would be better. The only consolation was Ella had overcome her 2nd biggest hurdle: Weeing on the wall, which although messy for me (she weed on my legs and boots), was quick and effective.
The following day was better, but still slow, and marked by more heat and some massive lower outs for me, Ella, and Ben. In the morning Ella had conquered her biggest fear by having a crap in a wag bag (hanging her bum over the edge with the wag bag clasped around her), so I felt things were looking up. My biggest worry was the amount of water we where drinking. Again Aldo and Paul pushed the ropes up and we followed.
On each pitch Ella had to jumar a fixed rope (backed up by a shunt on the haul line), inching her way up on her jumars. As each pitch progressed she got more and more tired, getting slower and slower. A few people had asked what I’d do if she couldn’t get up the wall and my reply was “well she’ll have to!” – never actually considering what if she couldn’t.
That night she was so tired (as was the rest if the team) that I had to take her shoes off and get her in in her sleeping bag, seeing in her then the deep fatigue that only a wall can bring.
The following morning we were only half way up the wall and it was tough getting her started, but started she had to be, as we had to move as quickly as possible to get to the top before we ran out of water. The sun had become something dreadful, like something out of a science fiction film, drawing near at dawn and bearing down all day until finally losing its grip just before dark. Worse still, El Cap was devoid of its usual winds that cool you down, and again and again I kept getting that T.L. Lawrence line in my head: “In the desert there is nothing, and no man needs nothing.”
On this third day Ella literally needed to be cajoled, bullied, and distracted up the rope, her fatigue obvious. Having done many walks, climbs, and paddles with the kids, I had a great deal of experience of this, but now this was serious, as I found my own fatigue hauling the bags too much to deal with. The low point came when I lowered Ella off a belay and she realised she’d dropped her iPod, a gift from her mum and engraved with her name. She started to cry and literally just hung on the rope at the end of her tether.
I shouted up to Ben and Aldo that they should be prepared to haul Ella up the next two pitches, as she was too tired to do it, and in an instant she came round and shouted “No! I want to do it myself – if I don’t I’ll only be disappointed,” and with that she slowly made her way up two more rope lengths to the belay. To say I was stunned by her strength, grit, and determination would be an understatement. I knew that it was this show of will that I had wanted to mine all along, a inner strength that I knew she had (and we all have), but even so I really had to find my own strength not to cry.
That night Ella fully endorsed the dirtbag life of a wall climber, drinking a can of Pepsi, eating a tin of pineapple, tuna mixed with soft cheese and a tin of cold beans and sausages. I asked her what stopped her crying and she said “I just thought that my iPod would always been in this beautiful place and that was okay…plus you said you’d buy me and iPad.” (I’d forgotten that bit!)
The last day on the wall was amazing, as finally the sun lost its grip and the wind came, cooling us off as we climbed the last three pitches. Big walls are always like this. They grip you so tight you feel as if they will kill you and you’ll never reach the top, and then, in the moment you relax and finally understand its lesson (you’ll have to climb one to know what that is) it releases its grip and reluctantly you reach the end of your journey.
On the final pitch Ella wanted to free climb, so I belayed her up, easy climbing for her in her trainers, but still on the edge of the world.
As is always the case, there was no room for celebrations as haul bags where pulled up one by one, and kit sorted. Each team member coming up one by one (what an amazing team is was – a true band of brothers…and a little sister). As I pulled up the last bag, Aldo pointed away for the edge and saw Ella sat cross-kneed in the dirt, her head bowed forward resting on a tin of beans and sausages, fast asleep.
As with all such climbs there is much to unpack afterwards – both physical and emotionally – and I think it will takes many months for us all to do so, but I think for everyone it was something very, very special. To spend two weeks alone with Ella was amazing, and also startling, enlightening, and surprising. I saw this little girl grow before my eyes into someone truly amazing. It was also a little sad, as I knew she hadn’t become this person on the wall, but in the 13 years it took to get there. Before me was this human being who could get rigged up to jumar herself, carry a big pack, and remain positive at the lowest moments, someone who thought her own thoughts and could look after herself. She tied on as my baby and untied as an equal to us all.
Andy Kirkpatrick is a climber, author, and speaker. You can read more of his writing at andy-kirkpatrick.com.