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American Tales: The Incredible Hulk

Updated: Nov 12, 2018

: ...the Third Pillar of Daaaana....the a Golden Eagle pass...Andrew, you have got to climb OZ

For the true effect of this final commandment, ignore the disappointing truth that the route is supposed to be called 'ounce' or 'oh-zee', and recall that OZ is a profoundly long and fascinating sound in Northern Irish. Awwwwzzz. Roll it around, let it permeate. Then, once it's worn in, introduce The Graaamm Traverrrse - the best traverse pitches I have ever done. The first three pitches of OZ lead to the Gram Traverse. Wouldn't you just love to climb this route? There is probably nowhere you can travel that comes loaded with more preconceptions than America - going there for the first time after years dripfed on American cultural media is like stepping into the TV. Once you've come out the other side and are looking back at real things, condensed from potentiality into fat droplets of experience, those old half-imagined futures are harder to remember. My expectations of going to America were certainly on the vague side, within the remit of a two month climbing trip that was certain to feature Yosemite and the desert. I find it hard to do the right amount of research before a trip, either sliding into a borefest of guidebook geeking and oversaturation of data, or not really being arsed and then not having a clue what to do when I get there. Thus, the words of the prophet and his guidebooks were invaluable in giving us just enough direction to distil the ghost of a plan.

We did buy a Golden Eagle pass, and visited five National Parks to make sure it paid off. We did climb The Third Pillar of Dana and OZ + Gram Traverse, on consecutive days. And we did go to the Needles, right at the start of our trip, and there began our education on climbing Californian granite. Today's Chautauqua is not about the Needles - I'll come back to them - but it was there that we were delivered another prophecy: Go and climb on the Incredible Hulk. It could be the best thing you do on your whole trip. We had never heard of the Incredible Hulk, but our campground buddies Michael and Matty sketched the beta on a scrap of cereal box. It was guidance that we couldn't ignore.

This is a picture of the Incredible Hulk. I have made it large, because anything less than large is not appropriate. It resides in a subsidiary valley of the High Sierra that few people would ever have walked into if it wasn't for some Tuolumne climbers in the 70s getting word of a thousand-foot-plus monsterpiece of immaculate white granite...

Sometimes a four-hour walk with a Ben-Nevisworth of height gain doesn't seem that much worse than one hour up a short slope. Or maybe that's more accurate in reverse - sometimes relatively short approaches feel like hell. Or maybe more accurate still, the pain of carrying all that climbing and bivi kit and food and water is temporary, while the sunset-tinted memory of thinning pine forests and this thing growing and glowing like a diamond above us hangs around. It also took me a long time to adapt to the scaling-up of things in America, so things didn't look nearly as far away as they really were. This was good for morale.

Ferdia was ill, but pretending not to be. This was not sensible, but is at least more admirable than the fuss I make when I think I might be ill. I was too buoyant with psyche to register that not being able to eat before heading off to climb a big route in the mountains was really not ok, and took her word that she was fine.

Directly beneath the Hulk talus, there is a flattish area punctuated by small granite domes and recesses, with a selection of delightful natural bivi sites. A smattering of other humans moved around. Were they arriving or leaving? Which route were they doing? You have to pop the question, false-casual, like you aren't rivals, like you don't resent them for being there. Americans are very good at this, or maybe they do actually like having other humans around. Mystery to me. Anyway, Red Dihedral is the original classic on the Hulk, but Positive Vibrations is the Steeple to its Needle - harder, more sustained and by all accounts better. We had brought information and copied hand-drawn topos for both, open-minded. At 5.11a Positive Vibes should equate to solid E3, though we were warned it was less the short cruxes, and more the relentlessly sustained 5.10 cracks that were going to hurt. We hadn't broken into 5.11 trad in the Needles, finding some of the 10a cracks there E3 enough. I was however too psyched to worry too much about this theoretical inconsistency. I asked another couple of pairs what they were climbing. "Red Dihedral." "Yeah man, we're going for the Red." Positive Vibrations it was then.

I ate some horrible cold pasta and wished I'd brought a stove, while Ferdia ate not much. We lay down to sleep, with the Hulk towering over us austerely in the moonlight. Near silence, only the faint drone of a plane now and then. I like to bivi tucked up against a rock or tree, so that if a bear or mountain lion comes to eat me in the night, at least it can't come from behind me. It sends you to sleep with a good buzz, thinking you might wake to having your flesh ripped by carnivore teeth, but knowing you probably won't. During the night, we were woken by a big rockfall somewhere. This was affirmation that what we were doing was alpine. Get in.

Ferdia had half a cereal bar for breakfast.

"At least I'll be light."

The first pitch is the easiest of the route, with only one section at about British 5b. The second pitch had a couple of thin finger moves, but Ferdia dispatched that without trouble. The third pitch was easy up to the first 'crux', a couple of technical moves to a steep pull, short-lived. I felt confident, counting out the pitch grades above, thinking this couldn't be too hard after all. On pitch four we lost some momentum. It featured a steep hand-jamming section, and Ferdia hadn't got her eye in for these yet. She was looking for holds. All I could see was two fat cracks, and implored her to crack on and climb them. Eventually she did, then cruised the fingery section above, which on second I found much harder than the hands. This was an emergent pattern. I launched into the long hand crack of the fifth pitch thinking it was about thirty-metres long, but reached the top of it considerably more tired than before and without much rope left. The position was exceptional, perched on the main crest of the buttress enveloped in air and ever-expanding views of the Sierra. The sun came around, but so did the wind. It was starting to hurt, but we were over half way - in theory.

After seconding the fifth pitch, Ferdia was very tired. I didn't really take this in, because she hadn't complained much and Ferdia can usually hang on for longer than me. She set off on the sixth, the second crux, looking hesitant and haunted, privately wishing I would take over or suggest we go down. She inched up an awkward flare and out of sight, then called she was safe much sooner than expected. When I emerged from the flare, which was desperate and insecure, she was hanging on a nonexistent stance with the crux still twenty metres above, and was running on empty. I had a flurry of anger that she'd let us get this far without telling me how much she was struggling, thinking we would have to go down and leave all that perfect rock looming above untouched. We were however on a gear belay, so it made more sense to climb to one of the bolted stances to avoid leaving anything behind. Devious. Ferdia tapped some deepdown reserves of motivation, possibly inspired by the beautiful finger-crack above or by bloody-minded determination to finish the pitch, and took the lead again. Heroine.

With the crux sent, it was only two more pitches to go. In theory. Ferdia no longer had any hesitation in admitting she was spent, and would not be leading any more. We were both suffering, needlessly, in the glare of rock so bright it hurt to look up, neither of us having brought sunglasses. I did however have my visor, so I handed this over like a gentleman, rolled up my sleeves like a labourer and strapped on the rack like a hero.

I was very tired too, but I hated the idea of going to all this effort only to fail on the route. Is that a poor source of motivation, in a rock-warrior sense? Now that Ferdia had dropped off, like a marathon pacer or domestique who had led me through the crux, I was obliged to pull it out of the bag, which as a stroking of the ego is also an unwholesome reason to be up for it. But I was also determined because the cracks above looked superb and it was shaping up to be one of the best routes I'd ever done, which is reason as pure as the fresh driven snow, so we'll go with that. It's not often that I'm taken by such a stubborn, uncompromising will to go Up.

Each of those pitches turned out to be a full sixty metres, so I gracefully accepted the availability of another hanging belay and made them into three pitches. On the final hand crack, the rock was turning golden and my hands were cramping, and I was struggling to pull up rope to clip gear, gurning through mouthfuls of nylon and metal and fighting a strong temptation to simply give in and have a rest. In theory this is not the sort of state you want to be in, but it is a state that I feel privilged to have found, occasionally. No thinking, no self-awareness, only being. And flooding relief when suddenly it's over, hand on jug and weight over feet, nothing more above to climb and the sun setting over the mountains. 

There was then only the matter of ten rappels to get down, with darkness approaching and Ferdia too exhausted to take much ownership of the process. On the first one we got a rope stuck and had to chop ten metres off. Then it was swinging down in the dark with uneven ropes, seeking out paired bolts and trying not to let tiredness and tedium push us into doing something stupid. When the ropes stuck again a few raps lower I shouted some bad words very emphatically, and they shat themselves and jumped out of the crack. It felt good to land on the talus again, and I was cheerful, but Ferdia was only relieved, and angry with herself for ignoring the body's protests and going way beyond enjoyment.

We bivied again, the alternative being a very long walk only to have to go in search of somewhere to camp when we got there, which didn't seem like an appealing alternative at all. We gave beta and a very dog-eared topo away to a Spanish guy whose pronunciation of Positive Vibrations made our evening. In the morning Ferdia was actually feeling hungry and we walked out, as others set off up the talus on their Hulk adventure.

Then there were chicken strips, and coffee, and The Congos, and the hard-won privilege of feeling most contented doing nothing at all...

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