By Steve Muse
While lying in my hospital bed recovering from my C7 spinal cord injury, self-pity consumed me, and I had thoughts of suicide. Climbing and mountain biking had been such a part of my life prior to my accident that it defined who I was. But never again would I be able to visit the wild places where I once played, or so I thought. Then, while recovering at Sharp Rehab in San Diego, I started dreaming of climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. My best friend, Tommy Thompson, said that when I was ready, he would again share a rope with me. At the time I was down to 130 pounds and so weak that I needed help with everything from sitting up in bed to wiping my ass. The idea of climbing El Cap seemed so fantastic that it lay idle for a few years.
Then one day Tommy asked our friend Dave Lane to be the third climber. He is an AMGA-certified mountain guide working for Yosemite Mountain School and a hell of a nice guy, perfect for Team Museman. The Challenged Athletes Foundation kicked down a nice sum of money to pay for my climbing gear.
My original plan was to do the climb in the fall of 2007. I suggested to Tommy that we climb the section of El Capitan known as the Zodiac. It was steep to overhanging and was the first route I did on El Cap as a nondisabled climber back in 1994. In June that same summer, I drove up to Squaw Valley with Tommy to visit with Mark Wellman, the first para to climb El Cap and Half Dome. Tommy had climbed with Mark years ago on the Lost Arrow spire for a film called Masters of Stone. It was great to meet Mark and his wife Carol and to hang with climbers again — although I got spanked hard trying to climb a 20-foot wall, only making it half way before my arms flamed out. Lowering off with my tail between my legs, I realized how far I had to go.
I was frustrated with myself sitting there watching all the other gimps yard themselves up the rope and touch the top. One of Mark’s bros, Malcolm Daly, had a 2-to-1 rope-and-pulley “cameraman’s setup” that was used to hoist heavy camera gear for photographing climbers. He went to his car and came back with a handful of gear. So I donned Mark’s “Rock Chaps” and hooked up the 2-to-1 set-up and gave it a heave-ho! I returned home determined, realizing that I have a lot more work to do, and decided to wait till the spring of 2008 to allow more time to train.
I purchased a pair of Rock Chaps and a Tee-handled ascender from Mark and purchased the other bits for the 2-to-1 on my own from Mountain Hardware. Mark drove down from Truckee to deliver my custom-made gear, and I got a chance to try my new chaps and 2-to-1 with him in the local rock gym. We quickly discovered that my old chest harness wasn’t going to work. Later I decided to buy another full body harness to wear over my Rock Chaps. A few more little tweaks and my systems were working fine. All the money from CAF was now spent and I needed to spend more. There isn’t any such gear for people like me. You have to search for something close to what might work and then modify it to suit. It’s an expensive venture.
Bruce Fagan, owner of Solid Rock Climbing Gyms, allowed us to train for free at the gym near my house in Poway, Calif. My buddies Jay Nelson and Stevie Welch were my main partners and helped bring in my old crash pad for me to sit on and lay my stuff close to me while I geared up. At first it was embarrassing returning to a place that I used to haunt as a nondisabled climber. I could see people staring at the gimp pretending to be a big wall climber with all this gear on, but once they found out why I was doing it, everybody was encouraging and genuinely interested.
On my 50th birthday, Jan. 17, 2008, I decided to see how long it would take me to do 30 laps up and down the 20-foot rope. Four hours later I completed the 600 feet without stopping, except to shake out my arms and hands. I continued to weight train four days a week, doing 216 lat pull-downs in the morning before work, increasing the weight as the reps got easier. Also, I kayaked almost every Tuesday night (for about 5-7 miles) and sometimes on Thursdays with my wife Jennifer’s group at Aqua Adventures. I would ride my handcycle on weekends for 20-30 miles. Cross training made it less monotonous and easier to have guilt free beer, one of my favorite things to do. Suckin’ down coldies!
As blastoff time was drawing near, I managed to sucker a few more of my friends into helping carry me to the base of the climb. I posted what I was doing on www.SuperTopo.com, a climbers website, and soon Jody Langford and Bob Lindsey said they would try to help if the time frame was right. I didn’t know them, but it was positive reinforcement to have them on my list. Most everyone was to be there for the carry in, but it was kind of vague how I’d get back down. Our plan was to take time off from work and have two weeks in the Valley, from the last week in May through the first week in June. We drove up Saturday, May 24, to cloudy skies and drizzle and snuck into Camp 4 to throw down a tent for the night.
In the meadow Steve “Shipoopi” Schneider introduced himself, but I already knew who he was. Shipoopi had his haul bag on the Zodiac at pitch 6 with fixed lines to the ground. He graciously apologized for leaving his stuff up there and said he hoped it wouldn’t be in our way. Be in our way? Like I matter! He already heard about our plan to climb the same route and questioned me about when we planned to blast and how long we expected to do the route. I liked the respect he gave me. “I’ll probably see ya up there,” he said.
I tried not to think of it too much, but I wasn’t sure how I’d fare on this expedition. Earlier in the day I had witnessed a helicopter rescue a couple climbers off El Cap. The leader hit Long Ledge, breaking his leg, bounced off and fell past the belay, but the rope wrapped round his leg, stopping him from taking a full ride. They sat there four days in cold rainy conditions until the chopper plucked the guy off the top in a sling. I wondered if I’d be next.
Big Wednesday came with clearing skies — the day I’d been waiting for. White puffy clouds, clear blue sky. Dry ground, the smell of grass, intoxicating trees. Another volunteer, Eric Sloan, co-author of Yosemite Big Walls and a friend of Tommy’s, joined us. A group of friends surrounded me as I wheeled as far up the trail as I could, to a rocky path that made its way up through the trees toward the Nose route on El Cap. The posse of 10, chatting and laughing, helped get the gimp up the trail. To save time, Tommy decided to carry me on his back for the first section of the trail rather than use the litter. His mantra: “Mount up, Museman, time to ride!”
At the base of the Nose I started using the litter borrowed from Mark Wellman. It must have looked to the climbers on the face like some sort of Keystone Cops movie below. Five guys surrounding me in this bright blue cloth litter resembling a giant shoe that laced my legs together from my feet to my waist. I sat upright with legs forward. The steep trail started to wear on me, just trying to keep myself upright. Not having trunk muscles, I hung on with my arms wherever I could grab hold.
I had to be set down because the stress of all that twisting and turning was upsetting my stomach. The sausage and egg burrito I had for breakfast was a bad idea. Before I could get the litter straps off, it was too late. The shame and embarrassment of shitting myself in front of everyone was too much to bear. I didn’t know if I wanted to cry or swear, so I started swearing. Tommy, in a commanding voice, said, “Just settle down, dude. What do you want me to do?” I said, “I need the toilet kit and a change of pants,” and he went off up the slope to retrieve the stuff from the stashed haul bags at the base of the Zodiac. I had to sit there with my friends and passing climbers and pretend everything was cool, but it wasn’t. Sometimes it really sucks being me.
We arrived at our destination in about three hours, a damn good time, all considered. I was cold. Trees blocked the sun and a constant drip was falling on the leaves from small waterfalls high up on the face of the Captain, but our bivy site was bone dry. Tommy was worried about me being cold and my shaking so much. They sat me down near the fire and wrapped me up in a sleeping bag. Come hell or high water, I was going to start climbing El Cap the next day.
It the morning I saddle up on Tommy’s back to make the last hundred yards to the fixed ropes and the start of our climb. Dave jugs up the rope with ease — I wonder if I will be able to keep pace with him and Tommy. A single 250-foot rope is fixed to pitch 3, and I start up right behind Dave. It feels good to do some work after sitting around for so long. We say goodbye to our posse on the ground, waving and shouting monkey calls.
When I arrive at the belay an hour-and-a-half later, Dave has the portaledge already set up for me. This is how we’ll work it for the duration of the climb: have the ledge out for me to sit in at the belays so I can catheterize when I have to and also save my legs from falling asleep. I can’t move my legs, but I can feel them, and I know when I’m losing circulation, so sitting on the ledge is key.
Tommy leads out on pitch 4 and completes it late in the day. I jug a separate line fixed to the belay while Dave cleans. I arrive at the top of the rope about the same time as Dave, and again he and Tom space-haul the bags and tie them off. Anxious to get another pitch fixed, Dave leads out to fix pitch 5 above us. Waiting for him to finish as the sun is setting, the drops drifting from the falls above hit Tommy and me in the portaledge. It makes for a chilly belay even with three layers and our rain gear on. The wind’s blowing drops as big as half dollars and we’re shaking like leaves on a tree. It’s 10:45 at night before both ledges are set up and dinner is made. We vow to set up before dark from now on. It’s vacation time and we shouldn’t have to work so hard.
During my morning pee I notice I have a urinary tract infection. No wonder I’ve been shaking so much – autonomic dysreflexia. Wellman’s advice to bring meds along helps me avoid catastrophe. We linger in our bags and drink coffee made from Tommy’s new Jet Boil stove. We have other luxuries — a frou-frou vanilla creamer, walkie-talkies, cell phones and an MP3 player with speakers. The cell phones work fine on the wall and we call our wives every morning. Our progress is being posted on SuperTopo. The climbing world is watching. I’m proud to be sharing this with my friends and family.
Tommy jugs up the fixed line that Dave set the day before, fixes my static and radios down that I’m good to go. I slide off the end of the portaledge with Dave on the other end to counterbalance, moving toward the middle as I drop off the edge. I swing out away from the wall to a freehanging plumb line, never touching rock until reaching the belay anchors at Dead End Ledge. Tommy makes quick work of the short pitch 6 and I race Dave to the anchors. He’s cleaning gear as he goes and still beats me there.
Leading the last pitch of the day, Dave works his way up the Black Tower. Above that is an A3 corner to a small ledge and a bivy for one at the top of pitch 7. We decide to make camp while we still have daylight at the bottom of the “Gray Circle.” Within an hour we’re all comfortably sitting in our portaledges. Tommy says to me, “Dude, you’re really sunburned!” The antibiotic — Cipro — has made me susceptible to sunlight and I’m fried. My nose later splits and bleeds and I rub a hole in my cheek from scratching. I’m starting to look like a big wall climber!
Cocktail hour is just beginning — Tommy with his Rock Star energy drink, Dave’s got Gatoritas, and I have a warm Oranjeboom beer. We’re pretty much out of the drip from the falls above, but occasional large drops pepper us when the wind gusts.
When the sun goes down, I pull out a fist-sized LED disco ball I stowed away in my personal clothes bag. With the music playing it seems like we’re on a dance floor rather than hanging on the side of a cliff. Blue, red, green and yellow lights reflect off the wall, creating a party atmosphere, at least for a while. Soon I’ll be sawing logs without a worry in the world.
Every morning begins with a phone call to the wives and news about the previous day’s posting on SuperTopo. Today we find out that Tommy is getting all the glory for doing the leading, so Dave’s wife posted to set the record straight. With all this technology at our fingertips, it’s amazing we’re having a wilderness experience at all. There is work to be done and we stow our electronics, except the radios.
Every day I time Tommy, Dave and myself as to how fast we do our jobs. Tommy is always the quickest, and I just try to get there before the bags. The pitches above that lead through the Gray Circle are in the middle of the 1,600-foot wall. Tommy again takes the first shift and dispenses with the 110-foot pitch in relatively short order. Dave cuts me loose from the comfort of the portaledge and I bounce against the wall and out around a small corner. No big deal. The air is warm and swifts are chirping and darting around like tiny fighter jets, snapping up insects and mating in mid air, wings fluttering in long freefalls. Waterfall drops are shining like diamonds in the sun, floating through the air like dandelions.
We stop for the night right in the middle of the Gray Circle at pitch 9 and set up camp. Looming above is the Nipple formation that resembles a woman’s breast from the valley floor. But that will have to wait till tomorrow. It’s happy hour.
Today I will belay Tommy as he leads the Nipple. I’m glad to at least do that for all the work those two are doing. I’m starting to feel guilty. The belay device I’m using, a Trango Cinch, only requires me to feed out some rope once in a while as the climber moves up, but I’m taking photographs and not seeming to pay attention, and Tommy is getting pissed. He’s leading out the roof toward the Nipple and standing on a black Alien cam while whacking in a pin when the piece he’s on blows. I can hear him exhale when the rope is taut, but he’s OK. I catch his fall with the softest dynamic belay he can get from my paralyzed body. He laughs, says, “Thanks Museman,” jugs back to his high point and continues on. Tommy caresses the giant nipple as he passes by and out of sight, tag line blowing in the wind in a huge arc.
The rope is fixed for me to jug — an opportunity for me to take a big swing. I hang from my spider line 30 feet from the wall with big air below. It’s a fantastic panoramic view as the wind blows me in slow circles around the rope. Looking at the meadow far below skirted by the placid Merced River stained green with algae and the Sentinel Falls east in the distance makes me appreciate where I am.
My line and the haul line get tangled, and when I grab the haul line to try to spin myself in the opposite direction of the twist, my rotations speed up, making things worse. I’m too far down the rope from the twist to correct the problem, so I let go and start jugging. We are in full view, smack dab in the middle of the wall, for all to see. It isn’t that big of a problem but is something to deal with from time to time as we ascend the route. We set up camp under the Devil’s Brow and Tommy launches a few bottle rockets to signify our presence.
Today we’re shooting for Peanut Ledge, two pitches up at about 300 feet of climbing. I’m feeling strong and still racing the bags to the belay. Looking down at the base we see a party of three jugging Shipoopi’s fixed lines. The climb has been free of traffic up until this point and we wonder if people are giving us room to complete before getting in line. It’s very unusual to have it to ourselves for so long. The weather has been good. Normally there’s a steady stream of parties climbing the popular route.
Tommy eyeballs the flake above and notices that the bolts shown on the topo have been chopped. The flake is 4.5 inches for about 80 feet, the rope guns only have two cams to protect the section, and if you fall you will bust your ass wide open on the thin sharp flake you’re climbing on. They aren’t sure if the cams are big enough either, so Tommy decides he will put it off till tomorrow and worry about it then.
Our last day on the wall — we have three pitches to the top. The protection bolts haven’t materialized over night, so Tommy swallows hard and starts leapfrogging the cams, hoping they don’t tip out as he gets higher. He’s very quiet as he works his way up the flake. Dave and I try not to distract him.
Shipoopi is moving up behind us, climbing gracefully and fast. He pauses on his gear to survey the moves above while chalking up his hands, then climbs like a cat up a fence. His wife Heather is belaying.
We try to top out before Shipoopi catches us, so no portaledge for me today. By the time we’re at pitch 15, they are a pitch below, and before I start jugging the last pitch 16 to the top, Shipoopi is sharing the belay at 15. It’s getting late in the day and we all want off the big stone before dark. It’s the best top out on El Cap with a tabletop finish, but after six days of climbing, I can’t get my junk over the damn lip! I don’t want any help doing the last few pulls. They let me try until I pump myself out.
Shipoopi takes pictures with my camera while I yard as hard as I can to pull over the edge. Heather has my legs and Dave is pushing my ass from below, both shouting encouragement, but I can’t get my waist over the lip. Finally, Tommy just grabs me and hucks me over. I’m on top! Two thousand and seven hundred pull-ups over six days, and now I’m sitting on flat ground.
There’s a jumble of gear all about and Tommy and Dave are glad to have their harnesses off. Walking around to stretch their legs, they look a little woozy. Shipoopi and company say their goodbyes and Heather hands me a carabiner off of Steve’s rack as a souvenir. Tommy piggybacks me down to a small sandy spot surrounded by bushes 60 feet down the slabs. Dave has laid out my sleeping pad and bag for me. It feels good to just lounge. Tommy pulls two beers out of the haul bag and hands them to me. “Museman,” he says, “I bet you thought we were outta these, didn’t you?”
The posse settles in for the night, spreading out in all directions to try to find a decent spot to throw down a bag. I’m left by myself to snore all I want.
At midnight Tommy’s phone goes off. It’s my wife, Jennifer, with her friend Blanca. They are at the summit of El Cap wondering where the hell we are. They’ve been hiking in the dark, determined to be with us on top. Tommy jumps out of his sleeping bag and hikes up the ridge by headlamp to lead them back to our bivy. All the while I’m sawing away, oblivious to what’s going on.
I wake to the sound of footsteps and the clicking of trekking poles on granite. Looking up the slabs I see a train of headlamps bobbing my way. Tommy shouts, “Get up, Museman, it’s time to party!” Bottles of champagne and beers and two smoked chickens! The girls hug and kiss me and I hold Jennifer extra tight. Warm Mickey’s Bigmouth beer never tasted so good.
It feels good to have Jennifer by my side. Spending the night with her in this beautiful place will be a cherished memory. Our bags are wet from dew on the outside, but the warmth from her body makes me want to just lie there and enjoy her company.
Choosing not to use the litter for the descent, I will be carried piggyback wherever possible. Max brings the crash pad, for protection as well as a seat for me during rest stops. Christian takes the first section of the descent. I see Half Dome in the distance, surrounded by storm clouds and bathed in sunlight with the valley floor still in sunshine, all green and lush.
Brian assumes the backbreaking task of following behind with the crash pad to protect our backsides in the event of a fall. Bent forward, arms out, he holds the pad inches from our butts. The terrain steepens, and the brush gets thicker as we head down the gully.
Brian is the next victim to carry the human sack. The trail gets even steeper, more boulders with thick brush on either side. People in the posse are spotting in front and back. When Brian’s back starts to spasm, it’s time to rotate in another mule. Tommy steps in. He is the strongest dude I know and is proving it with his limitless energy.
Steep slabs require an early setup of anchors before the fixed rappels. Dave and Tommy set the anchors with a big “Vee” of static line stretching about 30 feet to the edge of the drop off. I don my Rock Chaps and harness for this one.
Just as we reach the fixed rappels, about the halfway point, another volunteer shows up — Kevin Andrews, a seasoned wall rat. There is still a ways to go once we are at the bottom of the 500 feet of raps. Brian’s girlfriend Trish has carried up some goodies and snacks in her backpack. I sit like a king on the crash pad, leaning back on Alice while Trish hands me some food and drink. I’m reveling in the moment, enjoying all the attention. Everybody is there to help me! — like a barn raiser where people show up to help with the build. I try not to think about it too much because I’ll start crying right there in front of everyone.
Tommy comes up to my throne: “Mount up, Museman, time to ride.” The trail goes across a dry drainage that is covered in white granite boulders about 100 feet wide and vanishes into the trees on the other side. We continue on into the trees and he deposits me on the crash pad placed on a boulder for ease of loading me on the next victim. The trail is steep and slippery with leaves, boulders, roots and trees. Christian is feeling pert and wants to relieve Tommy of his burden.
Christian’s knee is giving him problems. We are saved from catastrophe by our spotters, Regis and Mike, when Christian loses his balance at the edge of a 20-foot drop off. Once again good fortune is upon us. By now, Brian’s back is so messed up he can no longer help with the carry. Tommy will take me the rest of the way by himself. Passing the Manure Pile Buttress, he steps up the pace, knowing the parking lot is near. I can hear shouts from the climbers yelling commands from their stances on the cliff, but can’t see them through the trees.
We come out of the trees and into the parking lot, walking side by side with Dave. The others are all around us, carrying gear and taking pictures. The tailgate of my truck is dropped, crash pad deposited, and I’m lowered onto my throne safe and sound. I have spent eight days out of my wheelchair, six days climbing the Zodiac, and have come back without a scratch, although others got injured helping. For that I am very sorry.
I have been a climber for over 20 years and managed to do 16 big walls as a nondisabled climber. This one, number 17, my first as a gimp, is the most memorable and the best climb I have ever done. Not because it was exceptionally difficult, but because it brought me back to a place I never thought I could return to — and be with the people I love.
Cam — Spring-loaded anchors that expand when pushed into cracks.
Carabiner — A closed, spring-loaded clip that can be used to quickly connect components in safety-critical situations.
Jug — To climb a rope using a mechanical ascender.
Pitch — A rope-length, usually between two belay points.
Rappel — To descend from a great height on a fixed rope using a friction device.
Space-haul — Two climbers on a line at once.
For an expanded glossary, go to www.rockclimbing.com.
• Challenged Athletes Foundation, www.challengedathletes.org; 858/866-0959.
• Mark Wellman, No Limits Tahoe, www.nolimitstahoe.com, email@example.com; 530/582-1135.
• Yosemite National Park, www.nps.gov/Yose/index.htm.