Walker Emerson is an avid outdoor climber, PG routesetter and monthly contributor to the Planet Granite blog.
Last week I got attacked by a peregrine falcon. Cowering on a small ledge a thousand feet in the air. The bird flew straight at us, its talons and wings outstretched, moving with incredible speed.
A long day requires a long route. The temperature was rising in the valley. Summer had arrived. It was 21 June and I was having trouble convincing anyone it was worth climbing in Yosemite. During the summer the sun becomes too intense to climb, baking the granite walls and crisping their surface like a loaf of bread in a hot oven. Most climbers seek refuge at higher elevations or at more extreme latitudes, but I was not ready to move on just yet. Fortunately, I was able to persuade my friend and fellow PG route setter, Anthony Orso, assuring him that we could stay in the shade most of the day if we started early and moved quickly.
The West Face of El Cap is a beautiful route on golden rock with many cruxes. It’s a huge day with over an hour approach and fifteen hundred feet of steep climbing.
The Peregrine Falcon is a common sight in the valley; its unmistakable acrobatic flight pattern is hard to miss. As it soars along the towering walls it dive bombs small birds at over two hundred miles an hour, colliding with its prey and killing it on impact. Peregrines can also be territorial and very aggressive; if you come too close to their nest they will let you know.
From the 1950’s through the 1970’s the birds’ numbers plummeted due to the increasing use of DDT, a pesticide that was widely used to eliminate pesky insects but, at an unforeseen cost, poisoned the food chain. As the chemical seeped into the falcons’ diet it weakened the shells of their eggs, causing them to break easily. With the ban of the chemical, combined with seasonal cliff closures for climbers on inhabited climbs, the birds’ numbers have risen and falcons are no longer endangered.
The alarm went off at four forty five am. We waited for the water to boil, watching the shadowy monoliths turn into discernible shapes and colors as the morning crept over the mountains from the East. We stood by the El Cap bridge filling our bellies. A light high on the wall switched on. Someone else was getting an early start to beat the heat.
We stowed our food in the bear bins and set off, skirting along the base of El Cap, passing route after route; Muir, Kosmos, Dihedral Wall, Aquarian, Lurking Fear….
Finally, we arrived at the base of the West Face.
Even though we had just hiked almost half of the wall, the climb still looked huge. And even though I had done the route just two years ago looking up from the base I had trouble finding the meandering path that the climb ascends. Nonetheless, without wasting any time, we began; moving slowly but steadily, Anthony following with a small pack containing water and food. The rock was hot and slimy, and I found myself a few times in an uncomfortable position high above my last piece, taking deep breaths trying to not think about slipping. Just rock climb… Exhale.
Returning to a climb that you’ve done many years ago is a rewarding experience, like a checkpoint to see how much you have improved or need to improve. The first few pitches of The West Face are where you get your points. The first pitch is a thin 11c with a boulder problem protected by a bolt. I approached the crux and reached for the edge I remember yarding on last time. It felt tiny and slippery. Placing my feet high I prepared to execute the move. Just as I was thinking ‘this isn’t gonna happen,’ I noticed chalk leading around to the left on larger holds. I reversed past the bolt and climbed to the left, discovering it is much easier. Arriving at the anchor, I thought, ‘Well I may not be stronger, but I am certainly smarter than I was two years ago’. Excited to be back on this excellent climb and with lots of ground to cover we pushed on, passing pitch after pitch of superb patina climbing.
Sometime after noon the sun hit us accompanied by a strong wind. The sun was hot, but the wind softened its intensity. We were now high on the wall. The valley stretched out below us and the profile of the wall fell away, joining it somewhere far below our feet. The route became less difficult but more committing with long meandering run outs on featured rock.
We pull onto a ledge high on the route and enjoyed two almond butter, cream cheese, and blueberry sandwiches. We watch a peregrine falcon swoop in the distance. “Seems late in the season for a falcon to still be here,” I mention to Anthony as I sip from my bottle of water. Suddenly Anthony yells “look out!” We hit the deck. A wall of air hits my exposed back.
Silently a large bird bombs over our heads with its talons and wings outstretched. We watch it fly out away from the wall and double back for another pass, coming straight for us again at incredible speed. I grab the backpack and swat at the falcon as it passes inches from our heads. “The pack is open!” Anthony screams at me. “Don’t throw all our stuff off the cliff!” Cowering on the ledge, shielding ourselves with the pack, we watch an amazing display of maneuvers. The falcon circles, flipping around mid-flight and returning to attack us again. The bird’s bright orange eyes burn terror into me and I wonder how long this will last.
Do I climb the next pitch with the pack on and then lower it down so Anthony can do the same, hoping that if the bird were to actually make contact it would only tear at the pack and not my flesh? I instinctively grab a rock and hurl it at the falcon as it comes in for another pass. The falcon dives after the rock, plummeting down and down and out of sight. We wait and watch. The coast seems clear and I gather up our gear with no choice but to expose myself to the bird on the next pitch. I start up the crack.
Luckily, the bird does not return. We finish the climb an hour later, topping out for Anthony’s first El Cap route.
The falcon was relatively small compared to us, and we were both tiny compared to the cliff… I had to defend myself with instinct.
Whether it be trusting a foot not to fail far above a last piece, or being forced to think fast using what little information is known, problem solving quickly and trusting intuition is what I enjoy most about climbing the big walls of Yosemite Valley.
Walker Emerson is a contributing writer for the PG Blog. He also sets routes at Planet Granite under the alias ‘Smash’. When he’s not plugging grips and jugging lines, he can be found on weekends clipping bolts at Jailhouse or sailing the granite seas of Yosemite.