© — I set a goal when I was fourteen to climb Yosemite’s El Capitan, or El Cap, as climbers call it. At 3,200 feet high, it is Yosemite’s largest massif. Greeting all who visit the valley, it is genuinely impressive, and lures climbers from all over the world. When I was 35, I, with my friend Octavio, walked up to the base of El Cap, and spent the night in preparation for our climb. I remember waking up the following morning, looking straight up as the sun illuminated the crest of El Cap, and thinking, “Bad idea…bad idea…bad idea.” We climbed, anyway.
We went up a route known as The Salathé Wall. Discovered in the early 60’s by my rock climbing heroes, The Salathé Wall has excellent and exciting climbing the whole way. Our five-day adventure took us to some of the finest climbing in America, and nightly bivouacs that offered unforgettable, eagle-eye views of the valley. There is nothing better.
On day four, we reached an overhang called The Roof. The Roof is about 2,600 feet up, and juts out perpendicularly, 20 feet from the face. As The Salathé Wall goes up, it travels to the left some, and to a section of El Cap that is dead vertical; from The Roof, you look straight down…nothing but air between you and the ground.
Octavio went first, leading the overhang. While climbing, you always stay attached to the rock. This is done with rope, slings, and removable anchors, called ‘protection,’ fitted into cracks. There is a series of cracks that lead up under The Roof, and a single, small crack that goes directly out in the middle of the overhang. Octavio worked his way up to the overhang, placing protection in the cracks, and leaving the protection in; I would follow and clean out the protection, bringing it with me for the next section of rock. However, when Octavio went out on the overhang, he cleaned the protection behind him, leaving the overhang without any protection at all.
Octavio worked his way out The Roof, hanging on one piece of protection at a time (suspended a full half-mile directly above the ground), and up to a stance just out of sight, around the lip of the overhang. I followed, cleaning the crack on my way up, to right under the overhang. For a moment, there I stood, precariously resting on small rock nubs, looking a ½ mile down. There was one last piece of protection, me, and 25 feet of slack rope that disappeared around the edge of the overhang.
Here is where absolute trust in your climbing partner comes in, as I had to trust that Octavio had set a solid anchor above me, and out of sight. I took a deep breath, pulled the last piece of protection…and let go.
I immediately went into free-fall as the slack came out of the rope, dropping about 20 feet. I dropped another 20 feet as the rope stretched, as climbing ropes do. Suddenly, the rope caught me, and I was hurled quickly out into space. I went out about 50 feet from the rock, and into a huge circular swing, while spinning quickly, pivoting on the rope as the twist came out. Around and around I went. The rope stretched thin to about the size of my little finger. I knew I didn’t need to do this…and I knew I had to do it; I had been thinking about it for years. I promised myself I would look down, and I did. My heart raced, my breathing shallow, as I looked at my potential landing spot. Nothing but air.
That’s just crazy.
Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2012
I have three mountain buddies that I can trust absolutely with my life: Octavio, Tom, and Dave. Octavio and I met each other at the Donner Spitz Hut at the top of Highway 40 on Donner Summit, CA. Octavio was a professional mountain guide, and I was a client learning alpine climbing skills. A mutual friend, Leslie, introduced us, and we took off climbing together like you wouldn’t believe.
Octavio and I started rock climbing together at Donner Summit, and then shifted, for a while, to alpine climbing. We would find ourselves on the summits of Popo, Ixta and Orizaba in Mexico, 17,802, 17,160, and 18,491, respectively. These were delicious climbs, and the training for them was equally savory.
Octavio and I climbed El Capitan in Yosemite together while Octavio was attending the Universidad Nacional in Mexico City. We went up with a couple of buddies of Octavio’s from Mexico, as two teams of two; Octavio and I were one team. Octavio and his Mexican friends were sponsored by Mexicana Airlines, so their flight up from Mexico City was free. This, however, meant recording the whole climb on a VHS camera that was so big it required shoulder mounting. It was worth the weight. Our Mexican friends completed the climb in four days; Octavio and I took five days, preferring camping on a cliff in Yosemite. We summited on day five, walked off, and enjoyed real, hot food in the Yosemite Village cafeteria.
A couple of years after our El Cap climb, Octavio was guiding three clients up Orizaba, all roped together. They were near the top, at about 18,000 feet, and they stepped out onto an unstable slope. Avalanches are virtually unheard of on Orizaba, as it is a semi-tropical mountain, and really never has enough snow to form an avalanche. This day it did. Octavio and his team of clients triggered an avalanche, and they dropped 2,000 feet.
That same day, I received the news at my office in No. California that Octavio and his team were fallen. Leslie and I were on a plane that day for Mexico City. By the end of the following day, we were in Tlachichuca awaiting instructions to join the rescue. By the following day, they had found Octavio and his team. Octavio and a client were dead, and the other two clients were very, very badly injured.
Within the year, half of Octavio’s ashes were carried up to the caldera of Popo and scattered. That same year, Popo, an active volcano, erupted. I remember seeing on the news the ashes rising over 10,000 feet, and knew that Octavio was in them; he was like that. The other half of Octavio’s ashes I carried solo to the edge of El Cap by way of a lengthy walk from Crane Flat. I found the same tree that Octavio and I used as our last anchor on El Cap, and set up a rappel. I lowered over the edge about 50 feet, and went looking for a place for the polished black urn given to me by Octavio’s mother. Swinging well off route, I found a small ledge with plants and wildflowers. El Cap has intense sheer winds that travel as fast as 100 mph up and down, depending on the weather. Because of the friction of the rock face, the winds are calm at the face, but race wildly about six feet out. I opened the urn, and poured Octavio out. His ashes were immediately sucked into the sheer wind, up, and disappeared over the valley. I placed the urn on the ledge, and went home.
If you ever get to the caldera of Popo, or Yosemite Valley, I suggest that you take a moment to talk to Octavio. He was a very strong climber, and excellent at his profession in any conditions. And he was the kindest person I have yet to meet. Able to summit anything, he was soft spoken, and truly empathetic. There are very few people on this planet like him. I have not only climbed with Octavio, but also have visited with him the Zocolo in Mexico, D.F, listened with him to mariachi bands at Garibaldi, and I was fortunate enough to live in Octavio’s home with great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Octavio was a gift I wish I could give to everyone. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I miss him.
I Love You Octavio.
PS; To My Fellow Mountaineers: Please begin your adventure with a commitment to get home safely. That is…safely…on the trip to the climb, on the climb itself, and on the trip back home. Door-to-door, safely. We want to hear your stories…firsthand. Now go climb something!!!
Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2012