Native Son, trip report, Sept. 1991
by Russ Walling© all photos Walling/Erikson collection

(Clicking on the small pic will bring up a larger pic,
sometimes with some additional notes about the picture)


"Go easy on the jug up here" I yelled. "The upper rope is pretty much

chopped". And this is how we began.

I was hot off an ascent of the MescaDawn Wall on El Cap a few weeks previous.

A basic 3 night affair that was to be the warm-up for the Native Son, owing to

the amount of sofa time I had logged, this seemed like a good idea. It wasn't,

but that's another TR. So on with the current circus...

All was well on the first pitch that starts out of a tree to some sort of

kookie mantle. Erik led this thing to get us off the ground without any

embarrassment from me and my free climbing skills. The real climbing started

under a small roof that was fairly severe

alumi-heads out a seam that headed

straight left. I was in the thick of the real stuff now, a trial by

aluminum one might say. This pitch quickly eased to good Friends and somewhat

wobbly belay in a wide groove. So far so good. Erik led the next pitch and it seemed

uneventful, but while cleaning it the teeth began to show. Hooking and some

sporty rivets led up to a spot of free climbing of unknown difficulty. Man,

was I glad this pitch was Eriks lead.

Erik led onto the big ledge to get our rotation right for the real leads to

come. This way he would lead the 5.9 blocky pitch to the base of the "Coral

Sea" and then I would lead the next two pitches to get us settled in at the

base of the "Wing" roof.

We fixed the first pitches to the big ledge and as ritual dictates, went for

liquor, food, and more liquor. Over the next day or so we packed the bags and

humped the loads to the base. Blast off was near, and the weather was hot and

stable...just perfect for a week of maniacal terror mixed with bored stiff


Jugging up to the top of the fixed lines is where our main lead line got the

chop. I noticed the fuzz falling down around me after changing over to the top

cord of our fixed lines. Oopsie. The cord was rubbing in two places and had

worn through to the core and then some. I exhaled to make myself lighter and

cautiously jugged by the chops. Then I told Erik. No reaction. I laced a

Jumar into the system to support the ropes below the chop and told Erik to come

on up. The chop was pretty bad, but we had some tape which afforded a fine

fix. Going to get a new rope was not an option, especially with all the tape

we had.

The huge ledge at the base of the "Coral Sea" is a good place to bivy. We set

up the portaledges and sorted the gear for the morning. The matter of the

chopped rope never even came up, but I knew that I was planning to stay away

from the taped least on the hard leads.

Morning was here and Erik led up the 5.9/4th class to a double runner belay on

a big block. Here is where the dance begins. I snugged up my helmet, cranked

up some Nine Inch Nails in the blaster and stated out leapfrogging some small

hooks, vaguely following a line up and left toward a big block pasted to the


Welcome to the "Coral Sea". The fall was getting pretty bad, and a clanger

onto the ramp below is certain if you skate. I got to the big block and

started looking for the first piece of real pro on the pitch. All junk. The block is big

and loose and is in no mood to hold pins or nuts. Now the fall is looking really bad. I

eventually get a Fish hook pinned in behind a flake with a 3/4" angle. This is

a pretty good piece and would hold a slice of bread on at least a 10 footer. I

waffled around the block avoiding the thinnest, most sloping,

take-you-to-see-the-reaper hook move ever invented. Finally, it was time, and

I got on the shitty hook and using a knee on the block, started looking for the

next placement. Voila! A half in RURP would do the trick and allow me to move

left into what I hoped would be a good crack. I slung the loose block and put

on a panic-arrester sling that would activate at 250 lbs. The crack that was

to be my savior is junk. Now things are getting seriously bad as far as

zipping the pitch and hitting the ledge. I started pasting #1 heads in the

loose crack and whenever possible, doubling them up and equalizing them. These

heads are so crappy I was using them as a braking device just in case I pulled

the hooks that were propelling me up the flakes just outside this rotten seam.

I eventually hooked the entire 100ft or so to the belay, still placing the #1

heads as I went. Survey says, "death fall".

The next pitch was my lead also, and it is a good one. Not too hard, takes

all the pro on the rack, and is plenty steep. It is a huge sideways crack that

leads right to the base of the Wing. Near the start it takes arrows and maybe

a blade or two, then in 165' goes to 4" and then back down to #2 Friend size.

Superb rock and location. I tied up the belay and since we decided to leave

our junk on the big ledge and bivy there, I prepared to rap back down. This

was a much better plan than cleaning and hauling our circus up to the top of

todays pitches. Erik rapped down from the start of the sideways pitch and I

did the big 220ft. full air rap from the base of the Wing. I got back to the

ledge and discovered that my harness was not all. It was being held

on by virtue of the girth hitches from my daisy chains around the webbing used

to tie the harness together. No knots whatsoever. I showed Erik and in his

low and slow way said, "that shit ain't cool". I guess my number wasn't up.

We bivied on the ledge and let our thoughts drift toward tomorrow and the


I jugged up to the high point in the morning while Erik cleaned the previous

pitch. I started to haul the 200lb bags and as sure as it was horrendous they got

stuck going across the rubble covered ledge. I set up a 3 to 1 advantage on the

hauling rig and started to really put my back into it. The main haul line was

a 200ft 11mm static cord, but since the station was about 220 feet above the ledge,

I had to use the 7mm zip line to make up the difference. Well I guess 7 mils

ain't what they used to be, for during one of my mightier pulls the

sheath opened up for about 6 inches. Sheesh, first day and already two

chopped cords. Omen? Maybe...

The Wing is a steep mother with a good crack to start and then a bunch

of rivets leading up and right out of sight. It is the sort of pitch that will

make a belayers neck hurt even if he is laying's that steep. Some

grim large heads await near the end of the pitch, and placing them looked very


The next pitch is your basic rivet ladder right off the belay and then some

fine nailing up towards the "K.B. Traverse" on Iron Hawk. Some dicey hooking

awaits above and then the pitch ends at a good belay station in a rivet ladder.

It was here that during the night a pretty good

storm rolled in and kept us pinned down basically all day. Thank God the

Olde English were talls and the blaster batteries were fresh.

Pitch 9 is pretty cool climbing over a few loose and expando cracks and

flakes. Erik motored this pitch and the highlight was finding some idiots

stool pasted oh-so-carefully at mid pitch.

From whence it came, I know not....

The belay on this pitch is funky expando and is notorious for

letting anchors fall out during the night. We knew about it and

it still happened to us. As I jugged up to the top piece in the morning to start my lead,

two of the belay pins fell out. Yes, it does wake you up. As Erik cleaned this station, the

flake had slapped shut on a TCU and squashed it flat. Yes, flat.

Pitch 10 is not so bad except for the really bad fall you could take if

things went sour. There is *the* sketchiest circlehead move I have ever seen

on this lurking on the traverse part of this pitch. After that you just angle

over on small pendulum off a hook to some #1 heads you hope will stick. A fall

here would be a melon breaker. I pinned a Fish Hook in again with a 3/4" angle

and led on up. Another small traverse follows that has a super technical

"hatchet" stack (ground down RURPs) that was just hideous to get. The problem

is that you need to lean right at a full extension and try to make the RURPs

stick long enough for you to land a hammer blow. The pitch is steep enough

that each hammer blow would make me barndoor away from the placement. Cripes!

I ended up doing a backstep/flag thingy that would make any Sportclimber proud

and getting some good licks onto the sad RURPs. Whew! It worked. Near the

end of the rivet ladder a woeful hole shows up that was a bitch to get

anything to stick in. I think I used a sawed off 1.5" angle and had to half

mantle it to reach some hook moves before more rivets came into play. Pretty

casual rivets and the odd hook from here, and it lands you at a

super bivy site that is clean to Valley Floor and has tons of bolts.

Nice! The next morning Erik led out on what is called the "Equator", an

expando but easy traverse into a reasonable crack that takes tons of pro. The

belay at the end of this pitch is cool and takes big friends, all the while you

hope they don't pry off the the main feature on the route, the

"Golden Finger of Fate" . It's big, hollow and who knows what holds

this 200ft thing to the wall.

Pitch 12 was marked wrong on our topo and man it got scary up top. Basically

I was cruising up this big left facing corner that is A1 or so, nailing away

with arrows and angles. Then it gets wide. Like real wide. I shimmied inside

and started to armbar the monster and could see all the way through to the

other side. At one point I had to abandon my cowboy hat to get further inside

the maw. After tons of groaning I had to hook the rack onto the bottom of my

aiders so I could get even further inside the chimney. Finally I got to where

I could get some wide pro way in the back and tied my aider on as an extendo

sling. Grunt-a-hoy and A1 my ass. Finally when I thought it was almost over I

encountered a rotten overlap that was super loose and venting sand. The belay

was still well above me. I stretched out of the chimney as far as I could and

started to drive an arrow into the loose crack above this overlap. Nope. The

crack was expando. I tried to push a Friend into the overlap, but as I

weighted it the sand poured faster and the overlap just kept expanding. This

was grim. I went back to the crack method and worked in an arrow stack that

seemed to be holding. Here comes the big test, as I have to sorta bomb out of

the chimney and onto the piece. If it blows I am so far outta there it's sick.

I looked down to confirm that the edge of the dihedral was extra sharp and cast

off onto the pin. It was holding so I hustled up my aiders and sunk another

pin that made the one I was on shift. Spookville. Looking down I noticed that

there were drilled hook holes to get around this chimney and into the crack

proper, bypassing the grievous offwidth and toil. Obviously the work of a

balless coward, since these were added after the first ascent. I clipped the

anchor and set up the belay.

Pitch 13 is a straightforward rivet ladder that is in good shape. Erik

cracked this off in about 20 minutes all tolled.

Pitch 14 is another rivet ladder with a single hook move out near the end. I

lead this pitch and I was to lead the next one also, so Erik could have the

last crux pitch. A great belay is at the end of the pitch and is where we

would bivy. The weather was starting to look grim so I decided to go out on

lead and get some of the

A3+ heading done before the corner started to run with

water, which it would if it rained. The pitch was a bear and had me struggling

like crazy to get in some of the 15 or so consecutive heads. It is an

overhanging corner that did its best to push me out and away from the wall and

over backwards. At the top of the corner was a good rivet which I lowered back

down to the belay/bivy from. We set up our ledges and as a precaution put on

the rainflys. Since we were already a day or so late from the first storm, the

food supply was about nil. I had one small salami and some hard candies. Erik

had a power bar and maybe a can of tuna. We settled in for the night and then

it began. First came the wind. Then rain. Then wind and rain. In the

morning it was still raining and snowing and the wind had picked up


Over on the Sea of Dreams a party was yelling for help. We

would look over and could not see the color of their rainflys for the amount of

water pouring over them. They were in a bad way. For the moment

we were fine. During the storm the wind was blowing so hard that it would

float my ledge out from the wall, turn it 90 degrees and crash it back into the wall.

This was starting to get serious. I called down to Erik to see how he was doing and the

word was not too good. He was getting wet and had a down sleeping bag. Can

you spell death? His ledge fly was in need of repairs before he got on the

wall and now it really needed work. I peered out of my ledge and saw his fly

being blown up over his ledge and him laying in a pool of water. He had

already toughed out a day of this, and it was time for him to come up to my

ledge and ride out the night.

Erik jugged up to my ledge and in the process of getting into my ledge copious

amounts of water soaked all our stuff. I was wearing a polypro suit and had a

Polarguard sleeping bag. Erik was wearing some wet Gramiccis and some sort of

jacket. He was desperately cold. I jettisoned his wet sleeping bag and any

wet clothes he had brought with him, and we both listened to the wails of

horror from the guys over on the Sea. We both got into my sleeping bag with

his feet pushed into my armpits to try and warm up his feet. This was going to

be a long night.

A few hours past and finally it was dark. Getting any real rest was a hard

trick and Erik was not warming up. We were both crammed into the ledge and

partially into the lone sleeping bag. Shivers were mandatory and the wind was

still managing to lift us both and float us around. Suddenly something started

hammering at the outside of the rainfly...WHAM.....WHAM....WHAM. It was Eriks

abandoned ledge that broke loose from where it was lashed and being whipped by

the wind into our fly like a cleaver. If it ripped the fly I truly believe we

would have been dead within minutes. I clawed one arm out of the fly and

managed to resecure the escaped ledge to the wall. This was really starting to

suck. We listened to some tunes to make things kinda like normal. They

weren't. Erik has now been shivering for hours and his feet were like two

frozen loaves of bread in my arm pits. We ate all 5" of the salami and drank

some water. I kept trying to get Erik to drink water to no avail. He was

urinating a bit too much for the amount of fluids in his system and I knew

there was trouble. His back has been against the wet rainfly for hours and was

now getting really sore. He claims that his kidney is bowing out of his back.

I don't want to see it. He takes a few sips of water and a bit of Powerbar.

The storm rages on. The guys on the Sea are now either quiet, dead, or just

unable to be heard over the din of flapping nylon and demons.

Every few minutes I doze off and then wake up. The cycle is agonizing. Erik

is getting colder still, so we decide to stay awake and make sure he slips no

further. He is getting confused. I try to straighten him out by telling him

that if he croaks, I will strip him, use his clothes for my solo to the summit

and chuck him off from here. He chuckles, thinking I am kidding. At around 4

am things start looking worse. It seems that some of our gear was hooked into

the ledge in such a way that when the stuff sacks and ropes and whatnot filled

with water and froze or whatever, it started to rip the bed of the portaledge.

Now when we moved, even an inch, the bed would slowly rip along the outside

edge. I cut loose all the heavy things attached to the ledge and remained

motionless. If the bed ripped completely, we would be in really bad shape.

For entertainment I suggested that we take our own

obituary photos and perhaps leave some last

words on the tape deck. I knew that if we turned into

stiffs, John Dill, the head of Yosemite Search and Rescue

would not only develop our film, but play any tapes in the blaster.

He is that sort of detective. Erik was even less amused now than before. We both tried

to stay awake and to think warm thoughts.

Morning is here. Erik is still with us and the wind has died down. I tell

Erik that the guys on the Sea are probably dead, and this is the storm that

gets them all. Every fall in the Valley, that first big

storm decimates all the parties on El Cap. When I was doing rescues

in the Park, it was a given that we would be waiting at the Rescue Cache

the minute the clouds rolled in each fall. Much like us, you start in tank tops and end

in body bags.

Erik was still not amused. Just as I was finishing my ghoulish tale the guys on the

Sea started yelling again. Unbelievable! They were alive and calling not only

for a rescue but for us to put on the Guns and Roses again. Within minutes,

Welcome to the Jungle played loud and true across the wall.

We saw the helicopters arrive in El Cap meadow and start hauling personnel up

to the top of El Cap. There was now a full on rescue effort going on for the

guys on the Sea. The weather was clearing and the sun was starting to break up

the clouds. The guys on the Sea were yelling over to us about us getting

rescued too. I yelled back that we were Ok and would be climbing on to the

summit and would see them in the bar later that night.

Erik was still in a bad way and his sportclimber frame was withered to the

brink. I readied myself for the rest of the pitch and got into my harness and

Jumars and started to sort the gear. All the ropes were frozen spaghetti and

the whole belay station looked like it was hit by a Zamboni. It took a while

to sort the stuff and Erik could not really help. I got him situated in the

sleeping bag and and set up my belay and attached it to his 8-plate. I jugged

the half-frozen line to the high point looking at the ice filled corner with

all the frozen heads from the previous day hanging like Otterpops. At the

rivet I got back out on lead and was like a salmon heading upstream. I tried

numerous times to place a head in a waterfall. No dice. I eventually looped

some wireds together on my hammer for extra reach and got a thin nut in

something under the water. I was soaked. Water went in my jacket and funneled

out my pant legs. I hooked along a big exfoliation that had water running in

the top and out the bottom, with the water being about 2" thick on the wall. I

set up the belay and told Erik to Jumar. This seemed to take hours. Erik was

moving really slow and was not able to swing the hammer to clean the heads or

pins. I told him to leave all the pro fixed,and to just clip past all the gear

and jug up here. I hauled the bags as Erik labored up the line. I set up the

ledge at the station and when Erik got there I put him in the sleeping bag. He

was disoriented and dehydrated. The lack of food coupled with the constant

shivering had taken its toll. I checked his ashen fingers for capillary

response and they refilled like they were powered by red molasses. He was


I went out on lead on what is the last pitch of the Native Son solo. Erik

could no longer belay. I slammed some blades into a traversing flake and

looked up at the rest of the pitch. Grim. In perfect weather this pitch is A4

and now the hooking and heading section was running with water. I could see

fixed heads here and there with just the clip loops sticking out of the water.

No way this was going today. I nailed back to the station to talk to Erik and

form a plan. I told him I could drill a hook ladder straight up the only dry

strip of rock and have him on the summit in about 5 hours. No good. He said

he didn't have five hours. A further exam of his hands showed frostbite

setting in. I asked him, "if we could get to the summit, could you make it

down the East Ledges?" No dice. Well it seemed pretty cut and dried to me.

We needed to get plucked. Erik refused. He did not want to get plucked. I

gave him the facts one more time. I asked him which would he rather have: his

fingers and his life, or the summit and no fingers, and probably not his life.

He deduced that life and fingers was probably a really good choice. I agreed.

With the rescue on the Sea of Dreams in full swing it was quite easy to yell

to the climbers on the rim to come over to us and drop a rope. As it turned

out it was Dan McDevitt and the late Mugs Stump who were on the rim above us.

They went to get a spare rope and I sorted the gear and prepared the station

for a gear retrieval at some later date.

Soon a rope attached to a daypack full of rocks was scraping down the slab

above us and once secured, I tied myself to Erik and started to Jumar to the

rim. I was trailing our 200ft haul line so I could get our gear back easily

some other time. Just about 10 feet from the rim the blasted haul line came

taught and I had to cut it loose. Bummer! We wobbled onto the rim and the

rescue guys led us up through the snow to the real summit, where the helicopter

was waiting. We were both flown down to the Valley floor and Erik was whisked

away to the hospital. I was given a much needed sandwich and jumped by the

press. It seemed the rescue had made

all the papers and some T.V. news as well.

After escaping the media goons I saw my friend Jo Whitford in the crowd

with a much relieved look on her face. After all it was she who said, "you

guys should not go up there", and had such bad vibes about the whole thing that

she gave me a good luck charm that I had tied to my hammer the whole way. I

think it helped.

Erik was admitted to the Valley hospital and they loaded him into a hot room

to heat up all his vital stuff. We went to see him later that same day and he

was looking pretty good. His fingers were going to be fine, albeit blistered,

and tender for a long time. With a whole bunch of fluids and snacks his other

problems would be gone in no time.

After any rescue there is the illustrious debriefing with John Dill. This is

where he asks the same questions and gets the same answers. It always follows

the line of "did you have a down sleeping bag?" Then the idiots say "yes".

Then he asks if you had good storm gear. And the idiots say "no". Then he

asks you, "without a rescue do you think you would have died?" and all the

idiots say "yes". Both me and Erik know, because we were those idiots. Thanks