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American Tales: The Rostrum

Updated: Nov 12, 2018

We're sitting in the parking lot of Annett's Mono Village the morning after the Incredible Hulk. Walking out took a lot less time, being downhill and unburdened of horrible pasta, so it's still early in the day. Camping chairs out, kit exploded everywhere, coffee brewing. A couple pull up next to us and the lady walks over. "Have you seen anywhere around here that looks like this?" she asks, holding out a postcard. It's a picture of a path through an aspen grove. It looks much like the one we just walked through, so we give her directions to get there. Strange. We laugh about it. Everywhere you go, the Sights have an information board bearing a picture of the Sight in question, which seems to me like taking a nailgun to the coffin of Sightseeing as an activity. But then, I'm negative, cynical and deprecating. That's not the American way. You don't default to mocking, finding a weakness, taking the piss. I would like to tell the story of a lesson I learned in America about positivity.

(We drive away from Annett's Mono Village playing The Congos' Fisherman through the car windows to the fishermen on the lake. At least we have a splendid sense of humor.)

Camp 4 never sleeps. There is always a headtorch scribbling on the tent wall, the rattle of a bear locker or cooking pots, muted conversation in a dozen languages, the schlumpf of footsteps weighted by haul bags. It's quieter during the day, when the nocturnals are roasting in their aiders on the radiator walls of El Cap or smearing vapour trails into the granite wherever else the Valley has dispersed them. 

We've had our asses handed to us on supposedly moderate routes at Arch Rock, and received the obligatory offwidth schooling of Generator Crack. In the same spirit of honouring psyche over mathematics that led us onto Positive Vibrations, we've decided this is an adequate education in Yosemarmite style, and that it's time to do something longer and harder. The Rostrum is sold as the best eight-pitch crack collection in the Valley, which is a very precise accolade, but it's one of those routes that's iconic enough not to need guidebook superlatives. Everyone wants to climb the Rostrum. The 'crux' of the route is 11c fingers, but everyone knows that the 10a offwidth and the unrelenting strenuousness are the real cruxes. That's how it works; look ye not at the grade, but at the width and gradient of the crack. Eight pitches is not very big for Yosemite, but we are Brit and slow, so we're up before dawn with the pot-rattlers and haulbag schlumpfers, with a not-ill Ferdia primed to dispatch fingers and me taped up and skipping coffee to prove that I'm taking it seriously.

Our early start is rewarded - we're halfway down the approach abseils when another pair appears above. By the time we've flaked the ropes under the start of the route, we can hear more than two voices coming down. Just before I set off up the first pitch, up bounce two extremely friendly and cheerful Americans, one of whom has a disconcerting moustache for someone under forty, and the other of whom has a feather in his helmet. They each have a can of beer, from which they pour a small offering to the rock and drink the rest. I leave Ferdia to establish a social contract and try to climb the first pitch very quickly, which goes well until I get my helmet stuck in a 5.7 squeeze chimney and become flustered. By now it sounds like a full-on party going down below. I can hear full-on hilarity occurring.

When Ferdia arrives at the belay, I learn that around eight parties are now at the base of the route. It must be a good day for Rostrumming. Because of the nature of the approach, those further down the line have the choice of waiting for hours and probably having to traverse off after the first three pitches to hike back out, or crossing the river and hitching back to their cars. I know what I'd have done, but it doesn't sound like anyone is leaving. So we're on an eight-pitch E4 with what I imagine is an elite squad of tape-gloved crack wizards up our ass. No pressure. It's cool.

OK, it's not completely cool. In fact, I'm a wee bit on edge. The intimidating level of difficulty combined with the pressure to get a move on puts me on the defensive. It puts a lid on my natural impatience, which simmers dangerously. We move pretty well, for us, up the first three pitches, and the climbing is superb, but our exchanges on the belays are a little bit hurried and terse. Thankfully our route-mates, Eric and Dan, turn out to be excellent at diffusing tension. They are unwaveringly friendly, complimentary and polite in asking if they can share belay stances. I'm plucked from my shell of cautious reserve into social discourse, which seems to be good for me. As yet I don't feel we're holding the train up excessively, and I sort of enjoy the added incentive to crack on when I'm leading, but by the time we reach the big ledge below the crux, we need a breather and some food. We can't keep up that pace all the way.

Pretty soon Dan and Eric are on the ledge, and team three's leader is pulling over by the time Ferdia sets off to tackle the splitter finger crack in the wall above. She climbs this beautifully, to animated calls of encouragement and exclamations of 'killer footwork!' from the ledge. Dan and Eric are having another beer. Further up the pitch turns to hands, and as Ferdia's velocity is inversely proportional to width of crack, I start to get twitchy again. I fret that the facade of slick alpine competence that I'm trying nonchalantly to project of us is slipping. I participate in a humorous discussion about American politics in order to mitigate the risk of thoughts turning to the inadeqacy of the bumbly Brits holding everyone back.

When it's my turn to second the crux, I make a bit of a poor show of it and fall off. No one on the ledge really seems to notice, but the mask really dropped there for a second. It feels like fatigue crept right up on me on the belay, and by the time I've reached Ferdia's stance I feel worryingly tired, with the steeper and harder half of the route still to come. I heard word on the ledge that the layback corner above this is a pumpfest, the last thing my arms want. I'm dispensing negatives fluently, and Ferdia scolds me. "You're good at laybacks, you'll be up there in no time." I doubt this, and take as long a rest as I can handle with Eric on the crux below. I see him take a rest, which gives some comfort - they may be quicker than us, but they aren't cruising it either. It happens that Ferdia's encouragement is not without substance; I am quite good at laybacks, and I show that ol' Rostrum so. Back on track, I spin my pistols into their holsters, confidence restored.

It's great how our skills complement each other, on varied multi-pitch routes - Ferdia the master of fingery stuff, while I take on the graunchier things. Go Team. Unfortunately you have to second as well, and the layback puts mileage on Ferdia's arms as much as the previous pitch did mine. Above us lurks the offwidth, hidden from view by a bulge. A conversation is had, the discursive details of which I do not recall, and the lead falls to Ferdia. At last, the #6 Friend we borrowed from Annie and have carried as a deadweight until now can be deployed. The climbing to reach the offwidth looks easy, in the way that overchalked rock can, but the face holds to switch cracks turn out to be poor, and the right sequence inobvious. Ferdia goes up and down and places gear and removes it, and the mileage counter is ticking. By the time she figures it out and gets enmeshed in the crack, the strain is apparent in noises Ferdia does not normally make.

Meanwhile, Dan is coming up the layback. The strain is showing in his face too, but he still has the good manners to ask if there's space for him up there. He plugs a cam blindly into the little roof and commits to the strenuous top moves. At the last moment, with the pump brimming, there's a snap choice to be made between laybacking on with crapping-out holds, or rocking leftwards to a sloping teeter onto the ledge. Dan is baring his teeth and a full-body tremble is seizing him from his legs to the feather in his helmet, feet sketching back and forth. He's so close I could offer a hand to help, but looking by the second more likely to test that hasty cam placement ten feet below. I sort of do offer a spare length of sling that's hanging off the belay, mumblingly, unsure of whether this is a good thing to do to a man in extremis who may have ethics about that sort of thing. Fortunately he pulls it together and rocks over without any aid, and the belay-ledge good times roll. They are finding it as hard as we are, only they're way more psyched about it.

Up above, things are getting wide. The #6 Friend is in. Ferdia has stemmed and chimneyed past the first wide section, but steep moves to pull into the crack straight-in prove to be breaking point, and she takes a fall. "Good catch!" exclaim the Americans. Ferdia is exhausted. "The bit I fell off wasn't even hard," she says. "It's not really an offwidth, there are good holds." She won't be going back up in a hurry. Fortunately she's hanging about six inches off an intermediate ledge with good gear, so she brings me up to that, which relieves the mounting space issue that's developing with the arrival of team three on my sloping ledge. And now it's over to me to fight some offwidth. I don't pull my pistols from their holsters with much panache. The feelgood is swirling down the drain with the last of our energy, and everything is pressurised and daunting again. We aren't even on a bolt belay from which we can graciously retreat to let everyone get on with their route. Why couldn't Ferdia have read that traverse better and saved some energy? Irritation and apportioning of blame come easily from habit. I can imagine how those feelings would come to me more easily still if I was in Dan and Eric's position, forced to wait on every belay with another team up your ass, but they are showing no signs of letting the darkness in. They cheer for me as I set off, unshapely, into the wideness.    

It transpires that Ferdia was mistaken, and that after the holds that she fell off it really does become an offwidth. There's a bolt, which is generous, and I don't need the #6 Friend which remains where it was below. I would like to say I've learned a lot about climbing offwidths from our trip, but all I can really advise is that you decide which side is going in, then put your arm and leg in, try to engage some shoe rubber with the rock, and struggle ferociously. So, by inarticulable means I gain increments of height, manage not to test the colourful possibilities of what might happen on an offwidth if you fall, and pull with relief onto another small belay stance, feeling mauled.

Only two pitches to go, but the next pitch is 11b and looks merciless. Ferdia arrives on the stance deeply unhappy with herself for being too spent to lead again, keenly aware of the repetition of what happened on Positive Vibrations. She's the crux weapon, but my mountain days over the summer seem to have built more all-day endurance. Right now though, I don't feel good for much either. I console myself dismally that I can pull on some gear if necessary. We are going up, but we're not happy about it. We're thirsty, and we're out of water. We need Dan and Eric to get themselves up here now, to bring some real live positive vibrations. On one of the belays below, Eric recounted their big-walling experiences of the past, and how they're not so much into that now. "It was fun about half the time," he said, "and I like my climbing to be fun all the time." I can only imagine how grim it must have been to crush those guys' sense of fun. "We like to talk in French accents when we're on big walls," he said, "like Nico Favresse! And when we're crack climbing it's usually German. Sometimes we do Pirate!"

It's important to remember that Fun is an attitude, not just something that happens to you. You can make it fun. Fun is not an exhaustible resource. I gather my positivity, and make for the steep hand cracks above.

The position of this pitch is unbelievable. The Rostrum is slightly concave so you can always see the steeper pitches circling in like a shark above you, culminating in the Alien roof, which goes as a 5.12 direct finish. We'll be leaving that one alone, and scuttling off right to an easier offwidth. I'm battling up a steepening, widening hand crack, when I realise suddenly that the chalk's on thinner cracks out left and I should have stepped that way sooner. I rest on a blue cam and lower down a couple of feet to get back on line, and the ghost of a clean ascent, already sullied by falling off on second at the crux, vanishes. We're learning not to be so precious about that here - I've seen other teams resting on the pitches below us. If it's a great climb near the limit of your ability and you have to take a rest or two to save energy, who cares as long as you're having a good time? If we took the occasional tactical rest, we'd probably move a lot faster overall. But this is heresy for another column; now the pressure is off and I just try to climb the pitch as best I can, taking another couple of rests when my arms are going terminal. I pull into the cave below the Alien roof feeling chipper again, knowing that now the battle's nearly won.

It's shruggy deference for who gets the 5.9 offwidth to the top, and I take it, fuelled on the abandon of having nothing to save for and the proximity of level ground and sunshine. At the car we wait, as agreed, for Dan and Eric, so we can share a beer. Other teams draggle back to their vehicles, probably having bailed at the pitch three ledge. When Dan and Eric arrive, we learn that all of the teams below them backed off, so we have a drink to being the day's only summiteers. We feel a touch of guilt, and I imagine those other teams throwing dirty looks at us, and dark mutterings of slow Brits in Camp 4. But there's probably no need. We were first and so it goes. We have some laughs, the sun sets fabulously, and we say goodbye.

I said I wanted to tell the story of a lesson I learned about positivity. I could try to expand with sweeping statements about differences between American and British attitudes and behaviour, to question ostentatious displays of positivity for their sincerity and a habit of talking positive for its actual value, accounting for me and Ferdia being a couple and therefore far more likely than other partnerships to allow ourselves the indulgence of rolling on a negative wave - but I don't want to do that. There is no need to analyse this. The lesson was succinct, and delivered with accuracy. To some people it's obvious, and to others it might be untrue, but I know it could work for me a lot of the time: You can choose to have fun.

NOTE: Apologies to Dan and Eric, in the unlikely event you ever come across this, if your names are not Dan and Eric. I'm fairly certain that those are your names, but in this case I have no doubt that you know best.


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