It’s the fourth of July, and Mike Kerzhner and I are two hundred feet from the top of a 1,700 foot wall deep in the Sierra Mountains. We see lightning followed by the clash of thunder. Mike takes the rack of cams and the end of the rope and disappears around the corner. Angel Wings, also known as Valhalla, is the largest wall in the Sierras outside of Yosemite. Huge crack systems slash the South face, and a deep cathedral at the bass beckons like a door into the earth. Mike and I are climbing Valkyrie a new wall first climbed in 2012 by Peter Croft. The route finding is unclear, as is our future. Mike and I awoke to the alarm at 4:45 am. I reached for my headlamp and unzip the tent, I could see the sky was still dark with clouds. We make coffee and oatmeal with sliced apples. “We’ll check again at eleven.” Mike said, referring to the forecasted weather. I ate an Ibuprofen and massaged my feet. The sixteen-mile hike in the day before had not been kind to my ankles. I shoved the rope and water bottles in my pack, and we headed toward the climb. “Valkyrie is from Norse mythology.” Mike said, as the dawn crept in. “She is an angel sent by Odin to secure the fate of warriors on the battle field.”
We hopped the river and scrambled through the talus field to the base of the wall. “It’s steep.” I said. “The rock looks good too.” Mike and I swapped leads, climbing run-out bolted faces and broken crack systems. Placing a nut high above my head I pulled a steep roof. I punched it to the next overhang and clipped the bolt out on the steep arete to my left. “That’s the Walker I know.” Mike screams up. The climbing flowed, with featured huecos and good edges finishing with a grassy finger crack that steepened to hands. Once at the belay, I let out a yell. Mike followed. We notice dark clouds forming over the taller peaks across the valley.
We continued on, following small corners and cracks before approaching a hard-looking bolted face that traversed up and right to another crack. I took the lead, mantling between small ledges on crimps. Desperately smearing my feet, I lunged for a side pull, reeling it in and getting my feet high. The final bolt, two body lengths away catches my attention. “I don’t wanna go for it” I say, “It’s too far.” Mike tries to coax me on; but the idea of going for a big fall takes over, and I can’t continue. I swing into the crack to my right and continue to the anchor. Lowering down, I clip the bolt for Mike and then return to the belay. He follows with the security of the top rope, and with a grimace on his face, he traverses the final slab section to the belay. “Thanks for clipping that last bolt for me.” He says. “No problem.” I respond. We discuss the threatening clouds.
A few pitches higher, Mike clipped a bolt off the anchor and traverses below it, sending the crux of the route. Climbing over a small pinnacle, he yells that he is off belay. He pulls up the bag. “Belay is on”. As I unclipped from the anchor, I heard thunder erupt in the mountains to the East. I swung across the crux and plunged my hands into the crack racing to the anchor. Mike disappears into a long wide crack. I reached into the pack and pulled out a half eaten packet of lime energy chews and my rain jacket. I watch as the storm retreats to the East
The shrill cry of a falcon pierced the air, I glanced up from the belay to watch it plunge into the air from its perch on an adjacent buttress. Like an arrow, it shot above our heads accompanied by a second. The screech echoed amongst the shadowy peaks of Valhalla. The two birds soared over our heads, glaring at us with their menacing black eyes. We were being visited by two Valkyries, sizing us up on the battlefield, sealing our fate, perhaps to take us back to Valhalla. FLASH!!! A dark cloud collides with Mt Stewart, one mile across the valley to the East. A second storm, this time from the North; I count six seconds, BANG. The Birds were no where to be seen, safe from their perch, they watched the battle unfold. I followed pulling on the cam. Drops of rain flew from the sky covering the rock. I joined Mike at a large boulder that he had slung for the belay. The clouds swirled around the surrounding peaks, FLASH. I began to count, one, two, three, four, five seconds, BANG!
Mike took the lead up another steep face, huge flakes jutted out from the wall; the wind blew the rain harder onto the wall, FLASH! I counted four seconds, BANG. I followed the pitch, fighting to mantle onto a soaked ledge, I grabbed at a small bush and pulled onto the ledge, jamming up cracks to the belay. The rain stopped, and I handed mike the cams and slings from my harness. He disappeared around the arete. Sheets of rain flew across the valley, rivers formed like white snakes slithering down the steep surrounding faces, slamming into the lake at the bottom of the basin, churning its blue water brown.
I feed out the rope for Mike, and watch it flutter in the wind as it danced around the corner of the cliff. Another flash, I count, one, two, three seconds, BANG. Followed by hail. The ledge turns white around me. I scream up to Mike. I wait. Nothing. I wonder how long it’s been, 20 minutes, maybe more. Huddling in the corner, lighting strikes right in front of me and the air crackles. One, two, BANG. I yell up to mike, still nothing. I think about all the metal I’m wearing. Maybe I should put the grigri on the anchor. Then I think about all the metal Mike is wearing and imagine the worst. “Please stop!” I say to the sky. Mike appears on the skyline. “You’re on belay.” he yells. “Haul the bag.” I shout back. “I’m gonna jug.” Following the pitch, I am surprised to find the rock is dryer around the corner; I yell to mike to start belaying. I climb the sculpted jugs and pull onto a slab. The holds disappear. I can’t believe Mike had climbed through the slab, it was soaked and there was almost nothing to hold onto. I pull on the rope and climb to the belay. The rain stops.
An hour later, we are back at camp. Our friends, Luke and Vitaly, whom had hiked out with us, had climbed the Saber Ridge and were waiting for us at camp. We all rejoiced with whiskey. A couple who was working on the trail crew offered us a beer that had been hoofed in by mule. “Do you know how many seconds is a mile when lightning strikes?” Mike asks. “Five seconds is a mile.” the woman said. “It was close then.” Mike said. We made dehydrated Pad Thai and laughed about the lightning.
Walker Emerson is a contributing writer for the Planet Granite 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.