|Wings of Steel (1982)
In the summer of 1982, Mark Smith and I did a first ascent on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. We spent 39 days and nights living on the wall, completely self-sustained, as we slowly worked our way up the route. We took countless falls and encountered injuries, storms, a waterfall, and, most dangerously of all, the wrath of fellow climbers!
This was Mark's and my first route on El Capitan. We had trained for it for years, including jumping off of bridges to get comfortable with the feeling of taking long falls. We did many routes in Southern California that we much later came to realize were harder than anything we found on established routes (like the Sea of Dreams) on El Capitan.
Yet, when we showed up in Yosemite Valley to do our first ascent of the Great Slab, we encountered a truly insane level of resistance from the local Search and Rescue (SAR) climbers. Refusing to dialog with us, and refusing to even hike to the base of our route to look at it, the SAR climbers instead made up a story about what we were doing on the route and rallied the support of the international climbing community to chastise us for our alleged transgressions. While we were getting loads to the base of the route, the first two pitches were chopped in the night, and our gear was treated to a large, messy dose of human defecation. We were threatened with the destruction of my car, maiming, and death.
With the route chopped and effectively erased, we were forced to spend a month ascending the Ranger hierarchy to even get permission to do the climb. Once we finally got on the route again, teams of climbers ascended the nearby Aquarian Wall route so that they could get above us to "bomb" us with trash and bags filled with human defecation.
When we finished the route, the debacle was far from over! Calling our route a "bolt ladder" and "a thousand bolts to Horse Chute," the SAR team orchestrated a slander campaign that spanned decades and every written form of climbing media. Magazine articles bashed the route. Books on big wall climbing and Yosemite climbing in general mentioned the route in derogatory fashion. The lies spread from the Valley to many other countries around the world. And groups of climbers harangued us wherever we went.
In the following pages, I briefly tell the story of the ascent, although even my published book on the subject can't tell the whole story. Each of the pictures below links to a page with an explanation of that picture and another part of the story.
More about various perspectives on the route can be found in the following forum threads. Notice how the first one starts, with yet more misinformation bashing on us and the route. Then, notice how the tone slowly changes. Unfortunately, it has become impossible to arrange these threads in any sort of "proper" order.
This thread list is updated as of 8/10/06.
At present, there are somewhere around 1000 posts on supertopo threads alone, so, if anything, interest in the climb (and the story of its attendant controversy) appears to be in full bloom rather than waning.
At the end of June, 2006, Pete Zabrok, Tom Kasper, and Randy Wenzel began working on the second ascent of the route. Perhaps all the fine beer promised on the threads as reward for a successful SA were motivational. However, apparently not motivational enough. I would be the last person to bash on the leader, Pete Zabrok, but he has sent me repeated emails encouraging me to do so: "Please feel free to write that I fully chickened out of the second ascent - it was just way too hard and scary for me, and I was completely unprepared to log the numerous 50-foot-plus falls that I was certain were required to work out the second ascent. You could also mentioned that we went to ASCA and got all the rebolting gear, and that Tom has replaced all the bolts and rivets on the first two pitches, so it awaits a second ascent." I will leave it to the intelligent reader to determine if the fact of Pete's 30 El Cap ascents (including the hardest routes) indicates that his self-deprecating attitude is justified.
As I write this now, the route still has not received a second ascent, although the findings of Pete, Tom, and Randy are all public knowledge. Not surprisingly, most of the stridently critical people on the forums have fallen silent. Yet, except for one man, those responsible for generating and perpetrating the most major controversy and slander campaign in climbing history have not yet come forward like stand-up men to admit their errors and apologize to the climbing community. Thus, even today, with the truth largely known, closure to this entire saga awaits.