I first approached Walt about doing a trip report type thing for our ascent of Born Under a Bad Sign back in the Spring of 1999. I was eager to collaborate on this project and do a two sided version of the events, complete with photos, and put it up on my web site. I have found it is funny how different people will remember different things about a climb or event, and in meshing the two, quite a good story can be melded from the two accounts. I also knew that Walt was a very entertaining writer and had a mind that was a steel trap for minute details. At the time of my asking him he had just purchased a new computer (Apple of course!) and was eager to use and learn the new machine. A flurry of emails passed between us and then he delivered the goods for me to edit and add my part. I thanked him for the story and then told him in the next email to be careful, as he was my personal "Smithsonian". This was to say that he was a storehouse of not only his own recollections, but many of the details of my own adventures, long forgotten by me. Sadly, he never got this email. He was killed the day after it was sent. (see Climbing Magazine #205 or this link: Walts Savage Journey
Note: The format of this piece is such that any points or addendum by me will be noted as by Russ (R) and will follow any paragraphs written by Walt. Clicking on the small pics will bring up a full size pic, some with additional notes about the picture.
No one had repeated "Born Under a Bad Sign" and
it needed a second ascent. Paul Gagner invited me to attempt the
route in the Summer of 1983. I had recently made Yosemite my full
time home and was eager to gain some wall experience.
Paul took the lead off the ground, taking a 20 foot whipper when
he pulled a few fixed heads as he neared the anchor. His fall
caused me concern, as he was the "veteran" and this
was not supposed to be a hard man route.
(R) The route was put up by Bill Price and Tim Washick in 1979. At the time, Bill Price was one of the best aid and free climbers in the country. Low key was defined by him and most people have never heard of him even to this day. I assure you.... he was bad ass.
The 2nd pitch, "The Copper Eclipse", should have warned us that we needed heads, though the guide's gear list failed to note the requirement. The A-3 rating didn't seem to jive with the number of consecutive heads placements I made off the belay. I was really starting to feel the weight of the route ahead. Paul was ever confident and seemed to have little patience for my queasiness.
The "Amazon" pitch came next and Paul took a short fall here while placing a 2nd pin straight up into an expanding rooflet. He hadn't even gotten to the A-4+ hooking that finished the lead! He was still undaunted.
I took the 3rd fall in 4 pitches on my next lead when an arrow placed out left in a blind crack shifted and pulled as I got on it. The climb was taking it's toll on me. I wasn't liking it and the ground was looking better and better. Paul on the other hand, would have nothing to do with bailing.
We reached "Cats and Frogs Ledge" with relief and ignorance.
(R) This is the ledge at the top of pitch #4. Lunar Eclipse and other modern routes also use this ledge.
No need to set up the ledges with such a fine flat ledge! A spring in the wall above with a steady stream of water is blown to and fro during the day, but at night, when the winds are calm, the stream settled in on our ledge! Huge drops slowly tracked back and forth, at times pelting me and then over to Paul. It was humorous to hear Paul getting "his dosage", then the fretful anxiety was mine as it moved onto me. We didn't want to rise from our soaked bags to attempt a ledge erection, so we just laid our rain flies over us. This helped very little since we were laying in a natural bath tub.
Come morning, a drowned Paul poked his head out of his soaked bivy and gave me the "thumbs down" signal and said, "Let's get out of here!". Admittedly, this was all I wanted to hear. We had brought a sign from a shuttle bus stop at the Ahwahnee Hotel to fix somewhere on the route, so our "high point" received it's mark! It mounted nicely on a 1/4"screw top bolt at the hauling anchor. We re-christened the route "Born Under a Tram Sign". For over a year climbers on other routes to the West could look over and see this strange sign. We were so clever! We rapped and pulled our lines.
(R) I was on various walls off to the left of Bad Sign, and when I would shine a headlamp across the wall this Tram Sign would light up like a television. Walt had told me it was up there and to always look for it at night. Then he went on to explain phosphorescence and why radium is no longer in use for such things as watches and road signs. He would give these snippets of knowledge freely and would fully animate the best parts. Walt was famous for his passion in telling these stories and regardless of how many tangents he strayed away on, he always managed to tie it all in and eventually close the deal.
As could be predicted, once I was safely back at the Deli, I had regrets and feelings of failure. Russ Walling, a.k.a., "The Fish" and "Mussy", would soon offer to join me for the inevitable "rematch" the following year. It was going to be great fun. The Fish is so thoroughly entertaining to be around that the terror of the route would be masked.
(R) I recall it being the other way around. I was looking forward to climbing with Walt because "he" is such a riot. I had done a bunch of freeclimbs with Walt, and his utter go-for-it and self depreciating manner made him a great partner.
time I felt more prepared, but then familiar ground on a climb
is usually less stressful . Russ ended up blowing off a crucial
hooking flake in the A-4+ section of the "Amazon" pitch,
eventually having to drill a rivet. We received grief for this,
but a drilled bat hook hole would have been wrong. Some folks
call drilled hook holes "artificial difficulty", but
I think they just plain suck! The truth is, they are fine for
the climber who drills them, but it is likely that those who follow
will not see the hole. The next guy may drill his own hole or
perhaps in desperation he might attempt a suicidal move and go
BIG! I've spoken with Bill Price (FA of Born Under a Bad Sign)
on this very issue, and he agreed, saying that at the time he
put up "Bad Sign" he just wanted it to be hard. Drilled
holes aren't fair game. I feel that an "enhanced hook"
is O.K., if you are prone to such debauchery, as the existence
of a natural edge will lead the subsequent climber to the feature.
On the other side, there is a wealth of stories told about getting
on a dicey hook edge only to look over and see the "enhanced"
hole! Yowser! Enough said, these ethical debates are just mental
masturbation and will make you nuts.
(R) I remember the initial pitches as being quite hard and kinda scary. The Amazon pitch was oozing water and with an A4+ rating had me somewhat worried. Right at the end of the pitch was cow pie sized flake that I hooked off the wall. It in turn hit me in the face and chipped a tooth and I fell backwards thinking I was going to rip the pitch..... but no! The hook below me, still clipped to my daisy chain, caught me! No Way! I settled down and then tried to hook past the missing flake. A really sketch hook gave me a bit more height, but I could not get past the missing flake. I was reaching around looking for something else to hook when BINK! the hook I was on popped and I fell over backwards again! Once again the hook on my daisy chain caught me! At this point I drilled a rivet and then two moves later I was at the anchor..... fully rattled.
Once we reached the weathered tram sign, beers were in order! This ledge had an awful pile of loose rocks in the area under the hauling anchor. The second 16 oz. malt liquor went down quicker than the first and it was time to "tidy up" the party ledge!
Several hundred pounds of rock were trundled after checking the base to insure no one was under us. A young couple at the base near Zenyatta called up, "Hey, there's people down here!" in a frightful tone. Having no sympathy, I shouted back, "Well get out of the way!" Our friend, Steve "Stretch" Ortner happened to be hiking the base at this time and met the fleeing couple. The woman was in tears, exclaiming, "Those guys up there were trying to kill us!".
We decided that the tram sign had to go so we threw it off, frisbee style. We gave directions to Stretch as to where it landed, but he couldn't find it. Russ and I had to retrieve it ourselves later. I believe it is now in some memorabilia collection!
(R) The sign in fact hangs to this day in my office.
"Cats and Frogs Ledge" was not going to get me this time. Russ led the 5.8 ramp to the top of the "Devil's Tower" where we had a hanging but dry bivy. The "Kamikaze" pitch was mine in the morning. It was merely A-3, but it took me several hours. One section in particular seemed thin and desperate, requiring an ultra funky rurp placement. I was adopting Russ' lingo, "Triple heads up Mussy, keep an onion peeled on me!" While cleaning, Russ spotted a rivet , that I hadn't found, near the rurp. He wouldn't chop it when I demanded it's removal. Did he know that we were to return in a year and it would be his lead? Nay!
Things had gotten serious again. Russ set out on the "Hari Kari" pitch armed with a loaded "double gear sling" wall rack of his own design. This invention was an absolute "must have tool" that I've used on every wall since. The pitch overhung gradually. The grand finally was several small heads with a ledge-ramp underneath waiting to cream anyone who blows here. The crispy white seam brings one to the giant "Rye Crisp" glued on the wall, an ultra expando wafer. Two long bugaboos would have taken Russ to a bat hook hole and then the belay bolts. He didn't see the hole that was next to a jig sawed section of the wafer. After hours of toiling, Russ gave in and called for the drill. He drilled one rivet and then spotted the hole. "Shit, there's a bat hook hole up here!". He pounded a rivet into it and secured the anchor.
(R) If you blow on this pitch it appears you would be all over a ramp lurking below you. The "Rye-Crisp" as we called it was way expando and I had a pile of crappy heads below me and nothing but a sand purging flake above me. With every piece I tried to get into this flake it would just expand and spill some more sand and loosen its grip on the wall. After a long time (few hours?) I placed something like 5 cams and and some nuts into the bottom of the flake, equalized them, and rapped back to the bivy site. I was spent and mildly freaked. This was some gruesome stuff and then next morning is when I actually went back up the fixed line to finish the lead. Same story as before with the sand and the expando. I called down to Walt asking if he wanted to give it a go.... he said "No....if you can't do it, I'm not doing it...." and that was it. An impasse. I stretched out as far as I could to the right of the flake and put drill to granite. I quickly had a rivet in and when I stood up on that rivet I saw the other drilled holes.....
We decided we had botched the ascent with the rivets. Russ rapped down to me and the decision was made that I would clean the pitch, chop the lower rivet, and we would bail in the morning! Later we received praise for our exemplary behavior, but I was secretly wishing we had just finished the bitch off! John Barbella once commented, "Once you blast on a wall, you've invested so much time and energy in the climb that it is stupid to bail" I must be the biggest fool ever!
(R) When we showed up back in the Valley, everyone was really surprised that we did not do the route. They took a look at us and we must have looked bad, shell shocked if you will, and in no mood for any questions. All we said to all that asked was "Don't go up there....." This simple statement kept the route devoid of would-be ascensionists all that year and into the next.
It was great to be up on a route with Russ. He has so many funny expressions that I seldom worried about meeting an ill fated end on the climb! Here are some examples, "Anyone who says that they are having fun up here is flat out lying!", "Being out on lead is like having a loaded gun pointed at your head all day!", and "Anyone who climbs walls is certifiably insane!". Belaying Russ when he is gripped on the lead is the real fun. The random alerts like...."Triple Bar Red Alert.....Heads up, it's getting real serious out here! Real serious! I ain't kiddin'!" would keep me laughing instead of worrying about our well being.
(R) It's true..... I blab out there on lead but never really thought anyone was actually paying attention. The alert scale (double -bar, triple bar etc) was an attempt to put some sort of vocal scale on the present condition, so the belayer could perhaps at least watch what was going on up there on the lead, instead of making sandwiches or sleeping.
I had heard rumors that Russ was planning to go up without
me, but once I arrived in the Valley we were once again a team.
(R) Partly true. I was getting antsy and did ask around if anyone was interested in going up there. In classic fake hard man style, nobody wanted to go, and in reality, none were qualified anyway. I would wait for Walt.
As before, we fixed the four pitches up to "Cats and Frogs Ledge". Ready to "Blast", we got a ride down to El Cap with intentions of hauling the bags and bivying atop the "Devil's Tower" once again. Russ was to go first while I organized the loads for the mondo haul. The 3 ropes we had tied together hung away from the wall at the base. Russ sorted out his tangle of daisies and began taking the stretch out of the fixed lines. He was only a few feet off the ground when I realized the futility of the situation......I had eaten L.S.D. earlier in the day and the prospect of organizing the haul was overwhelming me. I had to confess my altered state.
"Why didn't you just say so, Bip" he quipped
It was becoming obvious that we had failed to allocate enough time for our mission. It was back to the bar at Yosemite Lodge to party some more! Down the Zodiac talus we went and out onto the road, hoping to hitch a ride back home. Russ said, "Ah, we'll get picked up by some bleeding heart liberal in a V.W.!"
He was right. I asked the driver of the V.W. bus that gave us a ride what his politic was...a damned liberal!
(R) Now this was funny! I could tell something was up when Walt was packing the bags in a slow and strange way. He had packed bags dozens of times before, but never like this. I just thought he was nervous. I was hanging there about 5 feet off the ground when he told me..... I confess that I was relieved to get off those lines and have one more day of life. Within minutes we were outta there.
At the bar, we were chastised for not being on the wall like we had announced. We told our hecklers that the climb wasn't going anywhere, but then neither were we. Ah the pitfalls of being a Valley local.....it's so easy to put the climb off because we had "forever" to do it!
We rallied in the A.M. and got to the top of our lines. Russ began working on the the "Kamikaze Pitch". Next came the "Hari Kari Pitch", which was my lead this time. It wasn't too bad, having seen it while cleaning the pitch before. A short distance below the bolted anchor I placed a long arrow whose tip barely fit into a flake but then sunk to the eye after many blows. The pin threatened to explode the "Rye Crisp" off the wall and into my stomach! So that's where the name came from!
(R) What was neat about this is that over our various attempts, we each got to lead the first 8 pitches or so.
I also got the "Pop Corn Flake" next, as Russ really wanted the "Devil's Brow", the 3rd and final A-4+ pitch. "Pop Corn" was a few expando blades to a hook to several drilled holes and finally a thread-head 1/4" bolt without a hanger. Then there were 3 to 4 more holes before another hangerless thread head. It was plenty scary, hanging on those tiny Leeper pointed hooks on a smooth overhanging wall. At least it was a clean fall, as long as I didn't nail Russ lounging below on the portaledge! Relief came when I reached a crack that I could nail. Thin, discontinuous expanding flakes ended with a bit of free climbing and the pitch was over. Russ arrived at the belay giving me praise and saying, "I don't think you know how far you could have gone on that one!" Maybe it was doing two A-4 leads in a row, but I felt efficient and in control all during that day of toil. Maybe that wall climbing stuff can be fun?
(R) Walt flat out floated that thing! It was a technical and scary lead, and at one point I was ready to hide under the portaledge as the fall would have planted him squarely onto the belay.
Russ began our 3rd day with a generic A-3 pitch that ended on an arching slab with a crack. As usual, he kept me entertained with his wild antics, complete with narration. My next lead was straight forward at the start, up a right facing corner to the big "Devil's Brow" roof. The juncture seam between the wall and the ceiling was micro, but there is a nice straight in crack in the ceiling a few feet out. I've never been in such a position since that lead. The good placements were far enough apart that I had to lay flat on the ceiling, only upside down, with my harness clipped in tight at the waist, to make the long reaches. A-2 can be strenuous!
(R) Wild upside down nailing on the underside of this roof was spectacular to watch. When I was cleaning the pitch, I noticed a line of drilled holes on the wall, covered by lichen. Seems we were cursed again by the bad topo, and the FAists simply drilled along the vertical wall under the roof instead of nailing the cracks out in the roof. Walt was still glad he got to nail the roof and declared the drilled holes "way homo", and he was right.
I was now comfortably in the spectator's seat for Russ' hairy lead the next morning. Amused, I watched Russ as he swung around cleaning the long traverse under the roof to our bivy. As he neared the anchor I asked, "Russ, how come you are wearing your ball cap like that?" which was pulled down tight on his head.
"It's a blinder, I don't want to see tomorrow's horror show yet!" he babbled.
It was a strange hanging bivy under that massive, black roof. We placed a number 1 head straight up in a seam in the ceiling and hung a small Captain America doll by his waist in the biner loop. It took only a small updraft for him to "start shaking like a leaf". I repeatedly gave my best rendition of a Kink's song, "This is Captain America calling, catch me now I'm falling!" every time a draft moved the figure.
I can't tell this story without a side bar. Just before we went up on the route we ran into Steve Bosque in the Four Seasons Restaurant. He knew the first ascensionists, Bill Price and Tim Washick. He related a story of their ascent that we didn't need to hear. Tim Washick supposedly has a glass eye, and it tended to pop out when he got nervous. Steve told us that during their ascent Tim's eye kept "popping out" and he was "shaking like a leaf" most of the time! We thanked Steve for the useful beta! The next four days we frequently blurted out, "Eye popped out!" and "Shaking like a leaf!" during times of stress and fear.
(R) The amount of rep this climb had was a constant weight that were very aware of. It was almost a "who's who" of failures while trying to do a second ascent. Tons of big guns had gone up on Bad Sign and then bailed early. We included ourselves in this field along with John Barbella, Paul Gagner, Rob Slater, and a host of others. Furthermore, the FAist Bill Price had called the Devils Brow pitch the "hardest pitch he had lead" on El Cap. Not bad for a guy who did the second ascent of the Sea of Dreams and lead every pitch while his girlfriend belayed. On the first ascent I believe Price did all the leading after about the 7th pitch.
A cool bonus when climbing with Russ was his giant ghetto blaster complete with it's own haul bag. Mussy has a diverse and peculiar taste in music. We lulled ourselves to sleep one night to the mesmerizing voice of Charles Manson interviewed by Tom Snyder. Manson had some interesting responses to the questions posed to him. His father had spent a great deal of his life in prison and his mother had worked in one. She had related to the young Manson a story about a man who spent 13 years on Death Row in cell number 13. When he was executed, by hanging, his "head popped off" and rolled down the 13 steps leading up to the chamber of death. Manson finally ended up on Death Row, in cell number 13! He said to himself, "My God, what the hell am I doing here? I didn't want to come here!" This expression along with "head popped off" were quotes we liked to repeat while stressing out on lead. Especially the one about "not wanting to be here". It seemed so fitting.
(R) That night was a long one. Just as I settled in, the freakin' roof started to seep water.... drip, drip, drip..... too tired to move my bivy, I just hunkered down and took the water. Fully bogus. Between this and Walts singing of the Kinks song..... and the doom that awaited me in the morning, that night was not one of my best.
Russ started his hairy lead early on the 4th day. He was forcing the thinnest and shortest of blades into a non-existent seam leading out to the down sloping lip of the "Devil's Brow". I said, "Man Russ, I don't see any crack there!"
"Shut the fuck up!" he said, strangely pleading for some empathy. The situation was serious.
He blew off several large chunks of friable black rock before making the 4 placements or so that got him to the lip and a blind, just over the lip, copperhead placement. Around the lip the crack got better, taking blades and then rurps firmly. Both sides of the tape in the blaster had played by the time Russ had turned the lip. He was still close enough huck a loogie on. It was now time for a new tape selection...
"Hey Russ, any requests for music?" I asked.
"Just flip that one over and play it again! I'm groping for the familiar, groping for the familiar out here!" was his urgent reply. Then, with legs treading in the air, he said, "I repeat myself when under stress, I repeat myself when under stress!" What a hoot!
At some later time Russ was far out on his "rurp traverse" and I could no longer see him. Time passed slowly at my lonely belay under the Brow. I began to review the steps I would follow to lower out our bags nearly a full rope length horizontally. Suddenly there was a commotion of Peregrines swooping by, squawking . A blackbird soon appeared at my belay, flapping under our roof looking for some sort of protection. The panic stricken bird could only find rest on the lead line that ran "clothesline" style under the roof. Russ was unaware of the drama and called for slack, which I dutifully paid out. The bird rode the rope until a carabiner would force him to shuffle away from it. He made "clacking" sounds and would briefly take flight with the Peregrines dashing about, still intent on their prey. The Peregrines wouldn't come in under the roof but they were trying to flush the black bird out.
Russ began calling for more slack just as the situation became critical for my friend on the clothesline. I didn't have the heart to force him from his sanctuary at that moment. The rope was held back without explanation. Russ became disturbed with the faulty belay and began calling for slack with some urgency. I couldn't see the Peregrines at this moment so I gave the slack. The black bird took off, bouncing up underneath the "Devil's Brow" off to the left for perhaps a hundred feet. He finally found a roost in a hole near "Lunar Eclipse" and stayed there a great while! I later explained to Russ what had transpired, but he only gave me a look with screwed up and unapproving eyes!
I cleaned more rurps on this pitch than ever before or since. They were all buried deeply. I wondered if 13 rurps in a row could be called A-1? The only method I could figure out to extract them was using the tip of a 3/4" angle to drive in under the Rurps tang. This got them started on their way out, but not without some damage to the tiny piton. I found myself wishing Russ had placed them with the tangs pointed to the right instead of to the left like they all were. It was awkward to get the "mama angle" under the tang and drive it towards me as I hung on the placement to the right. I had to clip clean the entire traverse to maintain my working height. A bolder man would have just clipped in directly to the piece being cleaned and taken little whippers as each Rurp gave way.
(R) The Devils Brow pitch was one wild bastard. The rock that came off at the start of the roof probably weighed more than me all tolled. The blades were barely in and the flexing was amazing. Some of the blades would just accordion from the beating as there was no crack for them to penetrate even for an inch. It was a giant relief to finally turn the lip and get some RURPs rolling and feel a bit more secure. At the end of this RURP fest is a fixed blade that you lower down on for maybe 60ft and then pendulum over to Eagles Way..... harder than it sounds. I ended up hooking on the run (and pulling off another giant block!) and then down-nailing to the anchor station. When Walt cleaned the pitch he too had to lower off the fixed blade... dicey! if it blew he would have taken a massive winger of about 100 feet or so.
Russ' belay marked the end of "BUBS" proper and now we were on Eagle's Way for a pitch and then onto the Water Fall Route (unrepeated to this day!). We had only been doing 2 pitches a day for our 1st three days on BUBS. We were motivated to "kick it" and bivy right there when a base jumper friend called down from the top that he had hiked in a supply of beers. We told him we didn't think we would make it up that evening. He cached the the Heinekens (bottles!) for us and hiked back up to the top of the Dawn Wall to bivy. We quickly decided to get off this thing and head for the beers.
The last lead was rivets leading to some friction climbing. My Robbins boots weren't the best shoes for the smearing, but I managed to pimp my way to the summit. Finally we had done the 2nd Ascent of "BUBS"! Our topping out that 4th day was an unexpected pleasure. Dusk was fading to darkness as I hiked up to the Dawn Wall to retrieve our friend. The three of us enjoyed a good celebration that night.
(R) I remember laying there on the top of El Cap, face down, and Walt asking me "hey.... how do you like the view from up here?" I replied that the "view was great, and I ain't even looking at it....." Nothing like the feeling of being on top compared to the horrors of wall life.
Unfortunately our base jumper overslept in the morning and missed his dawn departure window. He spent another entire day up there and got it right the following morning!
The 5th morning began the final ordeal, the descent down East Ledges. As always, the ritual tossing of the sub-ledge (a solid portaledge out of a submarine) was something to savor. We tossed all of our haul bags too, filled with pitons, nuts, copperheads, empty water bottles and all the sleeping gear. This is a science to do properly and not destroy the contents or the bag. Basically, you make a parachute out of your ledge fly and then with great care attach the haul bag up inside the thing and then pack it as though it were a real chute. A water bottle clipped to the outside top of the fly ensures a speedy deployment once the bag gets some airtime. This superior method of getting the gear down is now illegal due to the Park Services desire to curtail, "an undesirable, circus-like, atmosphere." I wonder if they have ever watched one of their rescues, ones where a helicopter is used but isn't really necessary? I will say that tossing bags full of heavy gear can be hazardous to those below! That's what they get for hanging out at the base!
(R) On this wall was the first test of what would become one of my products, the Atom Smasher. This item was so named because when completely filled with pitons and the like and tossed off the top, it hits the ground with enough force to split an atom, should one be laying at the base.
We had summited on our requisite wall and could now happily retire to the Deli for many months of drinking and spewing! Unfortunately many climbers who visit Yosemite, might be unfamiliar with this local custom and disapprove of such a wasteful activity. To them I say, count your blessings that the locals are so apparently unmotivated and apathetic. This leaves more significant ascents available for them, and they get the added bonus of free local entertainment once they get back to the Deli. Some have referred to the before and after wall experience climbers enjoy at the Deli as a sort of time warp. The scene doesn't change there, and hopefully never will.
(R) After some recent trips to the Valley, it appears Walt was right.... the scene there doesn't change, but the players do.... sadly for all of us.