Imagine climbing El Capitan at 14. For many climbers, scaling one of the world’s largest granite cliffs is a dream. For Kara Herson it became a reality because of her incredibly psyched father, Jim Herson. Jim, who has been a Touchstone member for years, wrote a great trip report about climbing with his kids this past year.
Cliche but no less true, they grow up in a flash. One moment you’re lining the John Muir Trail with M&M’s coaxing her along on her first backpacking trip at age 4. The next, you’re watching in slack-jawed awe as she yards through the final overhanging bolt ladder of the Nose having just climbed her first El Capitan route in a huge, grueling day without jumars! Visually that looks like this:
When you find yourself taking your 14 year old up her first El Cap route, in a day, without jumars as a margin of safety for taking the 12 year old up his first El Cap route, in a day, without jumars, it is probably time to ask yourself what life choices have brought you here? Because when your partners’ combined age is half yours, you might want to revisit those choices.
Kara’s been itching to climb El Cap, or more precisely to do a Bandaloop on the King Swing, for a while now. Mirko is a local 12 year old climbing wunderkind who also wants to climb the Nose. Mirko’s a huge talent who had recently returned from Smith Rock with a tick list that would have made the tackiest lycra clad hardman of my generation blush. However, he had no multi-pitch or Valley crack experience. Not a problem. He could be trained up for that. Rather, the challenge was to make it daunting enough to keep the kids’ Valley interest piqued and itching for more. And so to mitigate the distinct possibility that they might grow bored of the Valley and move on, I took away their jumars.
To non-El Cap climbers, going jugless on their first wall might seem like a detail not more significant than color coordinating chalk bags. But it’s a bit more than that. Not that pulling together stylish climbing attire isn’t a biggie. We’ve certainly witnessed the problem of palette neglect:
Truth is, I had a few reservations about going jugless, an exiting new promising level of introspection which gave Anne, ever the optimist, hope. The problem was I have never actually gone team jugless on the Captain! I’ve climbed without jumars but only by having my partner jumar with the pack. The other twist was that the kids would carry their own weight. It was their climb, they’d earn it!
I had to confide in Kara that while I’m sure others have gone jugless on the Nose, they might not have been middle schoolers on their first El Cap route. So she’d have to climb it first to see if the scheme was feasible.
“Uh dad, shouldn’t Mirko be the guinea pig for your daughter. You know, gene selection and all?”
Darn that Mrs Taylor! Mrs Taylor was Kara’s beloved and totally feared 7th grade biology teacher. She demanded and received high school AP level biology out of the bright, hardworking, terrified adolescents. Unfortunately that included a solid grasp of gene propagation. Kara had a point about the guinea pig. But I still needed her to go first. Kara has had long Sierra granite routes coursing through her veins since she was a tot. While she works hard in the gym, it is in the mountains that she truly hits her stride. Having been climbing alpine rock routes her entire life, she has that big wall hone dialed. She’s fast, efficient, astonishingly competent, and has endless stamina. She’d have to be the guinea pig. Sorry kid.
But first there was some pre-NiaD [Nose In A Day] fun to be had.
Life’s realities might have done damage to the quantity of Valley outings this year but certainly not the quality. Starting with an early winter attempt on Freestone (8 pitches, 11c). Despite being a clear, distinct, obvious feature that I had climbed before, Kara and I took an “alternative”. Eventually we bailed but not before a good vegetated, grimy, wide trashing. A super fun day!
Sprinting across the snow/ice field under the dry upper Yosemite Falls on a biting November night was particularly memorable. More so after having enjoyed witnessing the thundering crashing of huge ice blocks caving off the Falls all day.
Not surprisingly, Connor’s sophisticated nine year old sense of humor latched onto a video he unfortunately stumbled upon of a nut slacklining across Lost Arrow Tip naked. Running with his new found Lost Arrow Tip obsession, we headed up for a winter ascent of this storied Spire.
It was actually a stunning, sunny, gorgeous day and, had we started hiking before 11am, it would have been a stunning, sunny, gorgeous descent too. I will only add without comment that the 11am winter start did mitigate the crowd issue. And that it was a total blast!
I probably shouldn’t cop to having to figure out my first Tyrolean at dusk in winter with two tots in tow. But I just can’t resist boasting that I did indeed pack a working headlamp!
Rounded out the weekend by playing in the Arctic winds on the Freeblast.
Connor [or maybe just little kids in general?] is a stunningly awesome slab master! He sprints up that stuff. I’d stick him on the fierce Lurking Fear lower slabs but I’m worried he’d just downrate them.
With flag football about to commandeer Connor’s spring weekends, we snuck in one last trip. I totally styled, after years of flailing, the Serenity+Sons of Yesterday crowds! (9 pitches, 5.10). But it wasn’t my 12 step Yosemite-is-crowded-get-over-it therapy that got me through it. It was the gripping horror of watching Connor(9) lead his first gear route! More precisely, it was the gripping horror of watching Connor carry a rack of gear but forgetting to place it.
Connor was itching for his own El Cap ascent so the following day we attempted the East Buttress.
It was a stunning early spring morning. Just hiking along the base, scouting out all the classic El Cap lines, and marveling at the gorgeous Horse Tails Falls raging over the lip was a highlight. Not a highlight though was when the wind shifted and that rotten Horse Tails Falls drenched us! Connor arrived at the pitch 7 anchor soaked. The little guy’s chattering purple lips and pitiful “Dad, I’m really wet and really cold!” got me thinking that perhaps it was time to revisit my No Partner Empathy policy. We bailed.
Catching a glimpse from Lost Arrow Tip and Freestone of the gaping maw that is the famed Lost Arrow Chimney (LAC) (10 pitches, “5.10a”), bumped this fierce classic to the top of the kiddie climb must-do list. The only downside to being married to a climber is that Anne is perfectly aware of LAC’s fierce reputation. Not a problem. I would just check it out first without the kids and Anne would be assured by my sound paternal judgement in pronouncing it kid friendly. Unfortunately, I ran into a minor, temporary LAC partner glitch. Not a biggie although honestly if it wasn’t for climbing with me would Christine have anything to sing about?
With the arrival of spring and Mirko itching for the Big Stone, it was time for some Valley funk wide training. With Christine being a LAC party pooper, Kara, Mirko, and I headed up to the Valley wide standard bearer, the Steck Salathe (15 pitches, “5.9”). Selling Mirko on this new, unruly, wide thrashing technique would not be easy. He sorted it out though and, while not (yet) a wide crack enthusiast, he got through it while grunting out some all time classic:
“I don’t know what this is but this is definitely not climbing!”
“Why couldn’t I have played basketball?”
“My entire body is pumped except my arms?!”
“Climbing is supposed to be elegant!”
Notwithstanding the above uttered in moments of severe distress, we had a blast:
Mirko’s foot was raw after the Steck-Salathe so he headed back while Kara and I climbed Beggars Buttress (9 pitches, 11b). A sleeper of a route, I had forgotten how wonderful and varied the climbing is. The sting in the tail exit move adds an excellent touch.
SPOT is a nice satillate based technology for sending pre-record emergency text messages such as “Need Rescue” or “Safe on Summit” to loved ones. I’d get one but it lacks the one pre-recorded text message that I need, “Honey, I parched the kids again.”
Continuing our tour of Valley classics, it was time for the Valley trademark — Astroman (11 pitches, 11c)! Figuring they’d be so lost in the intoxicating granite of Astroman they wouldn’t notice a bit of thirst, I went “somewhat” light on water (1/2 lt each). That it turned out to be a scorcher was unfortunate. Instead of arriving at each belay in excited giddiness at having just climbed yet another life affirming Astroman pitch, Mirko would crawl to the anchor, staring blankly with sullen eyes and a dirt dry tongue at the gushing Illilouette falls painfully out of reach across the Valley and dejectedly mutter “I’ve never been so thirsty.” Kara wasn’t helping things with her cheerful “Oh, this is nothing! You should have seen the time my dad forgot the water on the West Face! My goodness, that was dry.”
This was unfortunate. If Astroman doesn’t hook you on the Valley, you’re just not going to be hooked on the Valley. I can respect that. But when Mirko said he didn’t think the Enduro pitch was life altering I lost it and snapped “What?! Now look here whippersnapper! The Enduro pitch is the 4th best pitch in the Valley that’s not on the Salathe!!!” I was so agitated by this complete lack of aesthetic sensibility that I gave the kids a timeout in the Harding Slot:
Personal hydration not withstanding, Astroman was brilliant as always!
“At both ends of the economic spectrum lies a leisure class” captures nicely the varied climbing characters in our eclectic tribe. But more applicable might be: “At both ends of the age spectrum lies heartwarming inspiration.” Visually that looks like this:
At the base the next morning with Jim & George, we held the traditional Passing Of The Blue Camalot to the next generation ceremony. George then started up the route while I just sat there with a silly grin marveling at the septuagenarians’ audacity. (Admittedly, I was also soaking up not being the oldest guy on El Cap for once.) Kara hadn’t a clue who the “old guys” were but figured something was up as she had never seen me “Let someone climb first without twitching.” I could have watched their 40 year old friendship in action all day but we had a few of pitches ahead of us.
Jim and George graciously let us climb through. When Kara climbed passed George he pulled out his camera and exclaimed “Oh! I have to get a picture of this!” I explained to Kara that I hoped she would continue to climb now that she had peaked. Because it doesn’t get any better than George Lowe stopping to admire your climbing!
For a guy who’s allergic to crowds, I probably should have thought through climbing Yosemite’s most crowded line (the Nose) on the most crowded weekend (Memorial Day)! Having spent the majority of my El Cap career profusely apologizing to sympathetic parties for Greg’s passing behavior, showing up at a crowded belay with a kid in tow was pure delight. Folks were overly accommodating, friendly, and happy to let us climb through. We passed 10 people by 10am (and 14 in total)! Dolt Tower looked like Times Square on New Years Eve.
Having climbed the bottom section previously, it was smooth sailing to Dolt (pitch 12). Continued our momentum to the top of Boot Flake (pitch 16) which Kara threw down in style!
At the top of Boot, Kara finally got to do her long anticipated King Swing! The King Swing is the point where the route shifts left ~50′ into the next crack system. You lower down ~80′, run wildly back and forth ignoring the 1200′ of gut-wrenching exposure, gather sideways momentum, make a gigantic horizontal leap to the edge of the next crack system, miss, ricochet back across the face, ignore the 1200′ of exposure made more horrifying as the rope scrapes across the sharp edge of Boot Flake, and repeat. Eventually you latch the edge and feign that it was no big deal. Kara nailed the swing after just a few exploratory runs. Way fun!
Kara had been climbing strong and steady all day. But as the sun lowered on the horizon and unseasonably cool temperatures plummeted, we entered unexplored territory. She had never gone this long. For a kid who needs 10+ hours of sleep a night we were on borrowed time. I was terrified Kara would go all Jason on me.
Jason is a modest, strong as an ox free climber but at high altitude he gets a fat head. Literally. His brain fills with fluid and at exactly 21.5hrs he starts hallucinating. It’s deadly serious although I’ve certainly had fun with it. Once at exactly the 21.5hr mark on the Evolution Traverse, Jason started talking to rocks. Nothing unusual there until he then asked Tim to sing to him. While Tim delicately explained that the limits of their bromance stopped at singing, Jason passed out on him! Tim, the man who always gets it done, tapped his inner thespian and belted out some, apparently, way catchy show tunes. Tim’s lovely melodic baritone got Jason back on his feet and off the ridge.
With the fear of having to listen to her dad sing weighing heavily on her, Kara once again tapped the tank that should have long since run dry. She had been going all day on two cookies and two bars. Digging deeper yet, she quietly hauled herself up the final bolt ladder.
Totally depleted, she still had the spunk to sprint for the traditional summit tree dive!
I was sure we were in for a cold bivy on top. She would be too spent for the 2.5hr, 3000′ hike down the East Ledges. Which shows never underestimate the power of the El Cap Buzz! Kara, totally amped with a sudden flood of relief from the pent up pre-climb worry that she might not have it in her, insisted we hike back down to the van and have a proper dinner which was kind of weird for a kid who doesn’t eat?
We turned it around at the top of Boot Flake which, I will note without comment, was 14 pitches higher than where Hans bailed on his first Nose. And it doesn’t get any better than bailing 1200′ off El Capitan with a single rope!! (Leaving no gear or is that part redundant?)
While Mirko was disappointed, a disappointment handled with a maturity well beyond his year, his determination to train and suffer to attain his goal is stronger than ever. The kids rock! I have a wonderful feeling that El Capitan hasn’t seen the last of Mirko or Kara. Or for that matter, Jim and George.
I’m inspired. Inspired by “the old guys” for their raw audacity and determination. Inspired by the quiet grace with which they forever put to bed the age excuse. Inspired by the dignity and maturity of the 12 year old climbing prodigy — his eagerness to push his comfort zone and risk setbacks to explore and grow. And finally, although I need to recuse myself for extreme bias and unabashed pride, inspired by Kara. Inspired by her tenacity, mental fortitude, and climbing talents. But mostly I am inspired by her spirit to relish the moment and keep smiling through it all. As I sat there in stunned awe watching her pull that last bolt ladder, all I could think of was “Wow, that is one rad guinea pig!”
Thanks so much for allowing us to re-post this great story Jim! It’s always a pleasure to see the family climbing at the gym and outside!