Wow, here it is, the blank page. Where to start?
We arrived back home in Bishop this afternoon at approximately 1pm. We drove over Tioga coming from El Portal the night before, after having just stepped off the wall for the prior 10 days. 10 days we spent on Middle Cathedral, on a route that had somehow come to take a prominent residence in my life over the last four years.
A route that had come to mean something deeply personal for me, the appropriately named Father Time, the vision of Mikey Schaffer. First off let me express what a beauty of a route this is and brag on Mikey a little.
I had come to know Mikey some over the course the last 16 years in Yosemite and have had the privilege to make some of the second ascent and early repeats of his routes. I liked his style – his lines have always been interesting, hard and mentally demanding. Things I somehow thrive on despite how mentally taxing it might be for my own sake. I also knew things could never be over the top reachy as he’s a fairly vertically challenged individual himself. But, that’s not to say my 5’00” stature wouldn’t have struggle. But, I admire Mikey and respect his own work ethic and vision.
I had been in the market a little bit for a big Yosemite project. I tried my hand at El Cap via the Freerider and while those experiences were in themselves amazing, I didn’t want to toil over there in the sun for a while. The crowds were growing to boot and everyone who is everyone or wanted to be someone and even those who might consider themselves no one were vying for a free ascent on the Big Stone.
I wanted to be challenged but also wanted to be realistic. I’m nothing special as per rock climbing – no child prodigy, not especially gifted, just really freaking driven. I’m a middle-class climber with a tremendous work ethic, a lot of heart and definitely a bit of luck and am just good enough that I can make a bit of a living out of it. Coming from Baton Rouge, LA I dreamed of free climbing big walls in Yosemite. That was what I wanted to do with my life, that’s what kept me stoked on so many of those hot humid nights as a teenager.
So, while my inspirations might be huge I do like to keep it within the realm and this route seemed to me within it.
May 2018 was the first time I climbed on it. Nina Williams and I teamed up to check it out that year. We tried it traditional ground up wall style, hauling 6 days of food and water every pitch. The climbing was slow and tricky and the hauling even slower. This was Nina’s first wall and while she is incredibly strong and talented, she knew not of the ways of wall life. I taught her how to do it all on the fly – how to haul, how to dock the bags, how to release the bags, how to set up the portaledge, etc.
It was fun and I enjoyed her very much as a partner, but it was mentally taxing in that way that it can be when you feel like you hold the experience for the situation and are the one with the answers.
We got pretty worked and we didn’t top out that go round. If memory serves me correct, we were able to check out the upper pitches through the cruxes and sort out enough beta that we were stoked to come back in the fall to try again.
Fall 2018 we teamed up for another ground up effort, but we had help with the hauling. We had freed all of the bottom swapping leads through to the headwall cruxes. I was French freeing my way up the infamous Athletic 12c (5.13b) pitch when my finger got pinched in between two carabiners. A nasty blood blister took up the entirety of my right pointer finger, which shortly thereafter burst open. This small flesh wound drastically hindered my ability to bear down and really perform for free climbing. Nina, being the elite level climber that she is, pulled off an amazing free ascent that trip.
I was inspired but exhausted. Things weren’t finished for me yet.
Life things happened and I took a whole year and half away from the route but it stayed on my mind. Pretty Strong, the movie, had come out and I had to relive that second time up there over again a few times and my inspiration was turning more to frustration. I just needed to get back up there.
My friend and incredible suffer bunny, Lindsey Hamm said she’d go with me to try again. For the third time I ventured up wall style. She’s got muscle and so the hauling was a bit easier this go round, but while Lindsey is an accomplished AMGA guide she also doesn’t have much big wall free climbing experience. There were some epics – we endured a hideous windstorm where we got fully flipped up, over and out of the portledge one night, she hit her head pretty hard and we endured a freezing and exhausting next day. By the end of the week there just hadn’t been enough time for me to sort out the beta, recover, and red point.
Time is always the limiting factor. Lindsey had her own life obligations to return to. I had a little more time and was able to convince my devoted husband to come to Yosemite and give me a belay up there on the hard pitches, to which he did. It was just enough time for us to get up to the headwall and for me to successfully redpoint the first of the 5.13 cruxes called “The Boulder Problem.” I was pretty stoked because this was a good a crucial step in my own road to unlocking this route for myself.
I climbed on the second and third crux pitches, figured out some beta all over again and then we too, had our own life obligations to return to. I promised myself to return in the spring but I would need to employ different tactics. I just am not the type to be able to pull it off ground up wall style. I needed more time to get things sorted for myself.
With the help of some important folks in the story I was able to haul and fix ropes allowing for micro-taxioning sessions over the month of May. Siege-tactics is how some like to refer to it, but I don’t like the connotation of that and would rather think of it as a means which enables a way. This wasn’t about proving anything to anyone except myself, it was my own journey and this was just part of how the process had evolved.
From May 1 – May 29 I had a total of 11 days of climbing on the route. Ben joined me for a lot of that, as he himself was now interested. I had wanted to be up there with him for years. He had a hand in putting up one of the crux pitches for the first ascent and I knew that he would do well on freeing that stuff. Plus, he has always been my best partner for he is solid in more ways than just experience.
For those of you who know the ins and outs of high exposure on fixed lines, trying your hardest on self-belay devices with teeth, then you know it can feel gripping and it just doesn’t totally allow you to go all out with wild abandon. But, it did allow me (us) the opportunity to dial in the beta and get in shape.
The end of May into the end of the first week of June we had to return to Bishop for work. We made a plan to ready ourselves to go for it wall style starting June 14th. We were ready and so was the heat but we stayed the course. This was Middle Cathedral after all, the wall was basically shady all day and the wind had been nice, in fact downright cold at times.
On the morning of June 14th we arrived at the base around 6:30am. Much to our surprise the entire wall was in the sun. This was in fact the earliest we had been up there all season and we were not expecting this. But, alas we are on the Earth and it has a tilt and as the days crept towards the solstice the sun also crept across the wall three separate times over the curse of the days. By 8 am the wall was shady and we knew we had approximately 3 hours to get up to the first 5.12 of the route before it would be in the second phase of the suns ‘passing. We raced the sun up the bottom 10 swapping leads with no falls. A relief as any mistake would have definitely placed us climbing hard and runout 11+ slab in the heat of the day in the blazing sun.
Day 2 June 15th- we awoke feeling tired. We’re not spring chickens and so we have to play our cards wisely. We decided to rest for an attempt at getting up to the at least the first crux of the route, pitch 14, the Boulder Pitch. On June 16th, day 3, we woke to insane temps. But, we stayed the course. We swapped leads to the Boulder problem with no falls. We regrouped and then I tried the pitch first.
It is 3 bolts long and really does come down to a single move once you get through the intro of the climbing. It’s not easy and definitely requires some good skin, but it’s doable. I had done it before. I tried a few times but on this this day I never stuck the last move, a jump to a sloper jug. Ben sent first go. I almost split a tip and decided to call it. I would need really good skin for the rest of the route. The first signs of doubt and anxiety started to creep in. But, we had 6 more days.
Day 4, June 17th we woke to near blistering heat. We were in the midst of a five-day record-breaking heat wave. We rested as we would surely loose skin trying anything in those conditions.
June 18th, Day 5-it was still hot, but we were antsy and decided to crag on the upper two crux pitches. We realized pretty quickly it was a bad idea as neither of us could hold onto anything too small so we did a little more homework on the insecure liebacking of the end of Athletic pitch, and a bit on the Index. We checked the weather forecast. We were due in for a few more days of heat and then the temps were dropping from the 100’s back to the low 90’s and high 80’s. We discussed tactics and decided to go for the top 5 summit pitches while in the heat wave and save the harder stuff for the slightly cooler days.
June 19th, Day 6 – 100+ temps that day as we jugged from the bivy to top of the Index pitch. I tied in, racked up and we swapped leads to the summit through one 5.10, two pretty damn hard 5.12s, one death block filled 5.9 and a chossy and runout 5.8 chimney. Ben had no falls. I fell once on my 5.12 lead pretty low off the anchor. I lowered and red pointed second go. It was brutally hot, and pretty damn intense as a result. We topped out, did a rappel and celebrated with baths from sketcky water we found on a ledge before we proceeded to keep rapping back down to the bivy. A huge burden of the route had been done and now we could focus on the hard stuff.
Day 7&8 June 20-21 we rested, celebrated our 9th wedding anniversary and waited for the temps to drop a few degrees. June 22, Day 9 we jugged up to the Index pitch. I warmed up on it two minitraxion burns. And then Ben went first for a real redoint and he sent first go. He hadn’t quite done this pitch as one thing in our homework session and so it was really exciting to see him do it. I got choked up, he was well on his way to a no falls free ascent.
I tied in and fell just past the upper bolt of the crux. I cursed, recomposed myself and lowered. This pitch had taken me the absolute longest to unlock, but it was the one that was the least height and power dependent and the one that relied the most on footwork and wizardry. It was right up my alley. I pulled the rope rested a little, ate some gummies and then sent second try.
I climbed it flawlessly with flow. It was emotional and amazing. I had been on the verge of several emotional breakdowns and as I cleaned the gear on lower and got to the belay I was in tears with relief, amazement and joy. Ben hugged me and we stayed embraced, suspended in this blissful realm for a few minutes before we got our shit together and moved down to the Athletic pitch belay.
I needed to recover a little and it was Ben’s turn. He tied in and sent first go. It was beautiful. He climbed so well over terrain that really epitomizes everything that is amazing about Yosemite freeclimbing.
I went. My crux had previously been a long move after a kind of hideous down climb section. I mentioned that Mikey isn’t a giant, but he still isn’t five feet and zero inches. There are some bad crimps and long reaches and I had to find my own way through this terrain. I stuck it all to my surprise and I made it all the way to the upper offset lieback. I faltered my feet, used too much muscle to right my wrong and fell. I pulled back on and climbed to the top.
I lowered and came to feel pretty tired while sitting at the belay. At that point I had climbed 5 pitches of 5.13 that day counting the warming up on the Index. I didn’t think I had another go. We rapped to the bivy.
June 23rd, our 10th and last day. I was trying to not feel pressure, not feel intense, but to just be cool. We jugged up to the Athletic belay- I warmed up on the Boulder Pitch. It was really hard to keep it together. I was on the verge of coming completely unhinged at times…an emotional bundle headed for a train wreck and yet somehow I managed to stop and inhale and keep bringing myself back from the brink.
I pushed out all the negative chatter, focused on the positive, pulled energy and inspiration from my heroes the likes of Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, Jimi Hendrix and every single climber that forges their way through time and dedication, hard work and a little bit of luck. I exhaled, tied in and pulled onto the rock.
I stuck the down climb moves, absolutely smashed the long move that had been my crux and made my way into the crack and eventually the offset, insecure, and total body pump liebacking, running it out even. I pulled through the roof and up to the jugs and to the anchor. I had just sent the mother fucking Athletic pitch! It truly felt amazing, a feeling actually that I can’t even put words on yet.
I lowered, cleaned the gear and got to the belay. Ben and I were both crying. So much relief, so much emotion. So much anticipation and work and want had been dedicated to wanting to climb well on those pitches and to finally being able to see it through.
We packed up and moved down to the Boulder. I tried it 6 times and never could stick the sloper jug. I’d hit it and slide off again and again. I then tried Mikey’s beta, no jumping involved but tenuous crimping with little to no feet. Skin was thin by this point, and I was starting to feel the fatigue. I tried one more time but ended up one hanging the Boulder. The sun was starting to make its way up the wall and I was done. I had reached my limit. We rapped to the ledge packed up and went to the ground.
For the sake of technicalities on this 10 day ascent I freed everything, swapping leads and leading the cruxes with success except for the Boulder Problem pitch. However, I had red-pointed that pitch back in the start of December when Ben came and belayed me up there. So, I have freed the entire route with an asterisks on the Boulder pitch.
I’m pretty satisfied, really pretty fucking happy actually.
I took on something for myself that became completely personal and deeply meaningful in many ways. Ben and I had met on Middle Cathedral 11 years prior, celebrating our 9 years of marriage up there was absolutely one of the most special things. And I had put everything into this route, it had come to represent a lot for me as far as my own journey with climbing.
Big wall free climbing is a total mind fuck. It’s exhausting, it’s really inconvenient, and it’s never certain. There is a lot of internal pressure that builds, and, in the end, there is no fame and fortune that awaits you. It’s a rather inglorious pursuit of toil, emotion and 20lbs of human waste to carry back to the car.
And yet in these completely vulnerable spaces we put ourselves in something transformative happens. You enter another state of being, something that becomes other worldly. You know exactly what to do, you can anticipate how it’s going to feel, and you just breath, just keep breathing and making moves. One step at a time.
The Flow State, it can be elusive and just about impossible to grasp, but it happens and its real and it’s the most amazing feeling. A feeling so free, so elevated and so pure that I think anyone who has felt it can attest to wanting it more – The pursuit of flow.
Hendrix definitely had it, Bruce Lee and Ali for sure. I had been seeking it and I found it up there and so much more.
Thank you Mikey for your own toil, passion, motivation and absolute gem of a Yosemite free-climbing contribution. Thank you to all the love and support, both physically and emotionally, to all my partners and friends who have been with me through this process. It wasn’t a perfect ascent, but its mine and I’m damn satisfied.
For those interested and don’t know: https://www.mountainproject.com/route/109275454/father-time
June 26th, 2021 at 2:16 am
Inspiring! Way to go Katie-bird. So, so, so happy for you. Us hard-working ladies will always succeed because we are strong and won’t accept anything less. Love you!