Brandon Hernández 5 p.m., April 24
- Community Blog
- Tales of Adventure
Sturm Und Drang In The Shadow Of El Cap
Drive through Lakeside and head east on El Monte Road, and you soon will arrive at El Monte Park. This popular county park is nestled in that part of the San Diego River Valley which lies between Lakeside and the El Capitan Reservoir. Looking northeast from the park's green fields, one can enjoy a spectacular view of towering El Cajon Mountain, a local landmark in its own right.
Beneath the central peak of the El Cajon Mountain ridge, a particularly impressive cliff soars upward for several hundred feet. Since the dawn of technical rock climbing in this state, countless local climbers have coveted an ascent of this magnificent outcrop. Few have attempted it, however; the approach involves a heinous bushwhack through snake-infested chaparral, and the thought of any type of injury in such terrain is a sobering one. Most climbers opt for more easily accessible objectives.
In mid-December, 1985, an acquaintance and I scaled the right side of this cliff. Our expedition was arduous, to say the least; we spent a total of eighteen hours in the field, and only three of those eighteen hours were expended during our ascent of the cliff. Fortunately, those three hours of clean climbing were worth every second of the sustained masochistic torture we endured before and after the climb. But I forge ahead too quickly... allow me to tell the tale from the beginning.
I met J. at Mission Gorge in late November, 1985. I was then a rank novice, top-roping moderately difficult problems at the Gorge; my friends and I would blow out there once or twice a week and spend a few hours on the crag. We were there one afternoon, quietly minding our own business, when J. approached and introduced himself. He was a climber from Oregon, and he was visiting an uncle who lived in the Point Loma area.
We talked for a while, exchanging facts and opinions regarding our respective climbing regions. Seeing that he had no partner, we asked him to join us, and he quickly accepted our invitation. His modest nature belied his skill on the rock, and he soon impressed us by stylishly flashing problems upon which we awkwardly labored and grunted. When the session was over, I exchanged phone numbers with him, and we made plans to climb together in the immediate future.
I saw much of J. during the following fortnight. We met at various climbing areas around the county, and we gradually became familiar with each other's idiosyncrasies as we pushed our limits in each session. In all climbing situations, it is best to know one's partner, for better or for worse.
I soon discovered that J. was a Christian, bent on becoming a missionary and doing work in Central America. No problem. He didn't fall into the "obnoxious Bible-thumping @$$hole" category, so I let that one slide. I was hungry for experience, and I would have climbed with ANYONE. White slaver, serial rapist, psychotic mass murderer, or Christian... I didn't give a f#% what he did with his free time, as long as he could show me something new on the rock.
We were returning from an overnight trip to Stonewall when we first earnestly discussed the possibility of doing the cliff on El Cajon Mountain. We had joked about it before, but this time we were serious. We discussed it again over the telephone that evening; two days later, we were ready to go...
J. drove his wagon down to Coronado, and we carefully checked our equipment before embarking upon this great adventure. Water, food, protective clothing, first aid kit, fartsacks, climbing gear, etc. The value of each item was carefully weighed before it entered either pack. When we were finished, we had two packs weighing about forty-five pounds each. This burden seemed reasonable, so we threw the gear into the wagon and drove toward our objective, which was glowing orangely in the afternoon sun.
This was our plan: suss the approach that afternoon, bail to Santee Boulders to hone skills and spend the night, and begin our adventure early the following morning. We had extra water, food, and clothing in the wagon to cover this first night out. The only item needed from each pack was a fartsack; naturally, this was at the bottom, and its removal required the prior removal of the remainder of the pack's contents.
We slept in the wagon, windows wide open, and we woke at 0600, refreshed and ready. Submariner's bath, fresh clothing, light breakfast, equipment check... these preparations were efficiently carried out, and we hit the road at 0630. Driving through Lakeside and turning up El Monte Road, we eventually pulled onto a dirt shoulder east of El Monte Park. There we left the wagon, after one long pull each from the rig's water jug.
I surveyed my uniform before donning my pack. Woodland camo BDU pants were neatly tucked into boots which would have graced any Nazi storm trooper, while thick T-shirt, BDU jacket, and leather gloves completed the ensemble. No cap required. No loops or loose ends dangling from my pack. Glancing at my partner, I saw that we were ready to go. Our objective loomed up before us, approximately one mile away.
Crossing the road in the morning mist, we arrived at a gate which was clearly marked: PRIVATE PROPERTY---NO TRESPASSING. Yeah, right. Across the narrow strip of meadow between the gate and the chaparral, a jeep track led up the slope toward our objective. I climbed over the gate and slipped silently across the meadow, machete in hand to guard against dogs. My partner immediately followed, and soon we were marching up the jeep track, which was surrounded on both sides by thick, gnarly brush.
The jeep track was a godsend. We were beginning to entertain hopes of following it to the base of the cliff when it ended abruptly in a dense thicket. Oh, well, it was good while it lasted; we had already saved at least an hour, and we pushed on in high spirits.
Thus began the most heinous bushwhack I have ever done in my entire life. It took us five hours to reach the base of the cliff, which was less than a mile away. Sticking to a ridge spur and avoiding the more densely overgrown valleys to either side, we took turns hacking our way through vegetation which often towered above our heads. It was a f#$%g nightmare.
I remember numerous occasions when the brush was too thick and gnarly to cut. At times such as these, one had two choices: sink or swim. Now, I know what you're thinking... "How the f#% does one sink or swim in overhead chaparral?" Allow me to enlighten you...
By removing my pack and diving beneath the surface of the brush, I could reach those narrow spaces and animal tunnels which often intersected at ground level. These passages were usually twelve to fourteen inches high; crawling on my stomach and dragging my pack behind me, I made slow but steady progress in the relatively cool shade of the foliage directly overhead. If I were lucky, a tunnel would widen and ease my passage; an eighteen-inch tunnel was considered a luxury. When the tunnel ended, there was nothing else to do except surface, forcing oneself upward like magma from the chamber and erupting from the vent with horrible oaths and maledictions.
With no other options available, one was now forced to "swim." This was accomplished by an outward spreading and flailing of limbs; rhythmic flailing produced propulsion, and one simply steamed through the brush at one's own pace. When tired, one merely rolled over and "floated" on one's pack, buoyant in a sea of thorny branches.
I have fond memories of those swimming sessions. It wasn't so bad, really, floating on my back in the blazing sun and sweating buckets while recuperating from the latest thrashfest. Visions danced before my eyes: visions of Mark Spitz effortlessly slicing through the water... visions of Nordic mermaids laughingly transporting me with upraised arms... visions of giant Caterpillar rigs smashing mile after mile of thorny vegetation...
How easy to forget the harsh reality: every inch of my body being jabbed and lacerated by twigs and thorns, every scratch filled with sweat and dirt, every bit of progress impeded by branches caught in buttonholes and pack straps... It was a f#$%g nightmare.
We arrived at the base of the cliff's right side shortly after noon. Here we were forced to make an executive decision: work our way up to a granite dome above and blaze up its southwestern face, or work our way over and down to the base of a huge ramp at the lower left center of the cliff. The decision was tough. The ramp looked radical, but it would take us another hour to reach its base, since an especially dense, overgrown thicket lay between it and us. A mere fourth-class scramble and one or two pockets of vegetation separated us from the base of the dome. Naturally, we chose the dome.
Our original plan included a bivouac near the cliff; we had hoped to shed all excess gear and do several routes in shorts and climbing shoes. One glance at our water supply and I knew that multiple routes were out of the question. We had consumed far more than the anticipated amount of water during our approach, despite our swilling heaps of the precious fluid back at the car. J. and I each had half a gallon left, and that had to see us through our adventure. Even as we discussed the matter, I was overwhelmed by a raging thirst, and my personal supply was quickly depleted by another quart.
Another factor weighed heavily upon our minds. Neither J. nor I wanted to retrace our hellish path through the brush; nothing could induce us to enter that infernal place of torment again. Had a drunken Swedish Bikini Team been waiting by the car, purses bulging with cash and credit cards, we STILL would have chosen a different return route. That's how radical the brush was.
Ultimately, we decided to climb the dome while wearing our packs, hook up with the truck trail atop the ridge, hike four or five miles along the truck trail to Wildcat Canyon Road, then road march the remaining seven or eight miles back to the car. This seemed to be a sensible course of action; we knew we could replenish our water supply once we reached Wildcat Canyon Road, and there was always a chance of hitching a ride as soon as we hit the pavement.
Our course of action chosen, we smoothly cruised up to the base of the dome. There we ate a light lunch and donned fresh clothing before roping up. By 1300 we were ready to climb; since we were entering unknown vertical terrain, J. would lead and I would follow. I borrowed J.'s crash helmet to protect myself from any stones which he might dislodge; being anchored to the base of the dome, I was limited in my ability to dodge falling debris.
The first pitch was a short one, only forty feet to a ledge the width of a suburban sidewalk. There was a bit of "gardening" involved; J. had to remove one or two tufts of grass in order to place protection (climbing hardware, and the physical and psychological security it affords). A stunted tree grew upon the ledge, and this tree served admirably as our next belay station. Once he was securely anchored, J. brought me up without incident, and we turned our attention to the second pitch.
This involved moderately difficult mixed crack and face climbing, and I watched closely as J. ascended another eighty feet to a smaller version of the ledge upon which I stood. Less gardening this time, and no tree on the ledge; just enough room for J. to rest his feet as he sat at his "hanging belay station." Once again, I followed his lead, cleaning pro as I climbed. By the time I reached the belay station, I understood why my partner was smiling.
The third pitch included the crux of the climb, a beautiful dihedral (inside corner) with small edges on each side. We read that bitch like an open book... it was the cleanest pitch on the route, and the crack in the corner readily accepted fingers and hands. I watched J. ascend and disappear from sight, and then I experienced the first bizarre event of the day.
I was sitting in my harness, alert to any change in rope tension, when I heard a pinging noise above me. I immediately knew what had happened: J. had d!cked and dropped a piece of hardware, and now that hardware was falling toward me. I instinctively reached out with my left or feeling hand, grabbed a nearby "chicken head" (a small, weathered knob of erosion-resistant granite), and used this to pull myself in toward the wall.
A suspenseful second passed, and suddenly I felt a sharp blow on my left index finger. A Chouinard oval carabiner with a short runner or webbing loop attached had achieved terminal velocity before landing squarely upon my fingernail. So perfectly centered was the carabiner's blow that the runner slipped off my hand and fell around the chicken head. I pulled my hand away to shake the injured finger, and the damned runner and carabiner remained, swinging like a pendulum from the f#$%g knob. It was strange, but at least the gear was saved. My fingernail began to throb and eventually turned black.
J. was still on his invisible lead, and presently he began yelling instructions to me. Climbing up and away from me, he had reached the end of the rope, and he was just short of an ideal belay station (our rope was only 150' in length, and six or eight feet had already been used to tie into the harnesses and clip in to the anchor). He wanted me to unclip from the anchor and synchronously ascend a few feet with him until he reached the ideal belay station; there he would set up the belay and then bring me up. I readily agreed to this plan; with at least ten pieces of well-placed pro distributed evenly along the line betwen us, the danger involved in this "running belay" was minimal. Besides, the 'Peans did it on the Eiger, and I always was a sucker for historical bullsh!t...
Breaking down the anchor, I moved cautiously up the line. I could feel J. moving at the other end of the rope, and this motion was mildly unsettling; I was wearing a cumbersome pack while climbing on small edges, and the rope action wasn't improving my style. Worst of all, the wank started yelling again; I suppose he was equally "gripped," but there was no excuse for such behavior. In a passing fit of rage, I told him to shut the f#% up and get on with the business at hand.
Finally, he put me on belay, and I could climb again with a true sense of security. I took a few deep breaths, recalled why I was on the cliff, and set about making the most of that excellent third pitch. I emerged from the dihedral and saw J. thirty feet above me. He was sitting on top of a large rock horn which protruded from the face of the cliff. Several runners were wrapped around this horn, and an additional runner led to a piece placed in a crack two feet away.
I climbed up to him and took his place at the station. Not a word was said about our screamfest; this was not the place to discuss it. We still had one more pitch to go, although this was an easy lead across the top of the dome. We could have unroped and soloed it, but one false step meant death, and we were still wearing our packs. I watched J. run it out to the summit, where he set up an anchor and belayed me until I joined him.
It was now 1600. We had approximately one hour of daylight left. We rested briefly on the summit of the dome, grinding snacks and sussing out the view below. The valley was bathed in golden light, and distant treetops shimmered in the haze. A deliciously cool and refreshing afternoon breeze gave us strength, and we soon focused our attention upon the next leg of the journey.
We still had to cross the ridge to find the miserable truck trail, and the central peak of the ridge loomed three hundred feet above us. Fortunately, boulders and outcrops of rock were strewn across the intervening slope; we reckoned we could cut our "bush time" by traversing these "islands" en route. With this thought burning in our minds, we donned our bush clothing and set out for the central peak.
We burned another one-and-a-half hours during our "island chain traverse." Half of this leg was completed in darkness. Traversing boulders in the dark is not easy; one must climb onto the damned things first, cross them without slipping and falling into the surrounding brush, then downclimb the opposite ends without getting speared in the @$$ by countless thorny branches. A lovely pastime indeed. My partner endured another round of shocking obscenities as I made my way toward my immediate goal.
We arrived at a small saddle atop the central peak in time to see a gorgeous full moon rising in the eastern sky. The surrounding rocks were bathed in the moon's yellow light, and faint points of light from innumerable homes shone in the distance. We hauled ourselves onto a huge, sprawling boulder and took a well-deserved breather as we sussed out our situation.
We could see the truck trail gleaming in the moonlight several hundred feet below us on the northeastern side of the ridge. With this in sight, our spirits rose; we would soon be out of the bush for good. J. suggested that we spend the night on the boulder and tackle the last leg early in the morning, but I disagreed. It certainly was a beautiful place, and I easily could have slept there, but our water was running dangerously low. I had little more than a pint left, and I could have consumed it then in one long draught. A night march would conserve water, and there was plenty of illumination for this purpose. There was nothing to do except push onward.
After a brief rest, we descended into the bush for the last time. Although there were few boulders on this downhill leg, our progress was aided by gravity, and we thrashed toward the road in relatively high spirits. I remember one incident which occurred on this leg: I plunged into a small clearing in the brush and stepped directly into a crowded nest of field mice. They squealed and scattered beneath my boots, and I leapt the f#% out of there before any could bite me in a final defiant act of martyrdom. J. instantly altered course to avoid this unexpected obstacle.
We reached the truck trail shortly after 2000. I paused to remove the most offensive thorns and secure the machete alongside my pack before marching northward in silence. Over four miles of rutty dirt track, horribly steep in places, lay between us and Wildcat Canyon Road. We slithered and skated down the worst sections, "ball bearings" flying in all directions. My partner began to lag, and then he began to whine... I told him to pick it up as I stepped out accordingly. If there's one type of person I can't stand, it's a f#$%g whiner. With repeated obstacles and deep ruts in the trail to hamper our progress, over two hours passed before we reached the pavement.
We emerged from the truck trail onto Wildcat Canyon Road. A few houses were scattered about, and one or two dogs barked as we marched past these houses. We still had a few swallows of water left, so we didn't bother to stop. We turned southwest onto Wildcat Canyon Road and marched down the paved shoulder toward Lakeside. There wasn't another soul on the road, and no cars passed as we trudged along the asphalt.
We stopped at Stelzer Park before midnight. A working water fountain stood near the parking lot, and we sucked down heaps of the life-giving fluid prior to refilling one or two canteens. A phone booth beckoned to us from the park entrance, but the damned phone was out of order; we didn't have cab fare anyway, and there was no reliable person we could call at that late hour.
We resumed our death march, and within minutes a pickup truck roared past and came to a halt ahead of us. The driver was a girl en route to Lakeside, and she had pulled over to offer a ride. She must have been a trusting soul; who else would pick up two absolutely filthy and grimly determined men, El Salvadoran machete protruding from one's pack, on the shoulder of an unlit road shortly after midnight? We could have raped and murdered her on the spot, but that seemed a poor way to repay her kindness. Instead we chose to ride in the bed of the truck, thereby preventing our manly sweat from assailing her delicate and sensitive nostrils.
She dropped us off minutes later in front of the 7-Eleven at the intersection of Lake Jennings Park and El Monte Roads. We were nearing our ultimate destination; only a few paved miles lay between us and the stinking wagon. I was about to move on when J. had a brilliant idea: he had just remembered some Christian Fellowship pals who lived in the area, and he figured we could hit 'em up for some fresh grub and a ride to the car. I didn't know what to think of this plan.
"Do you think it's wise to rattle their cage at this ungodly hour?," I asked.
He muttered an unintelligible reply and shouldered his pack before moving away. I reluctantly followed; after several twisting turns down residential streets, we arrived at the door of a darkened house. To this day, I don't know the address of that house; I only know that it was somewhere in Lakeside. I waited patiently while my partner knocked softly on the door.
Lo and behold, the side gate opened and an elderly gentleman appeared in the driveway. Thinking we were hooligans bent on mischief, this poor guy had been unwilling to open the front door. Once J. identified himself, everything was fine, and our host politely ushered us into a comfortable room at the back of the house. There we met our host's wife, a kindly woman who was obviously of Christian upbringing. She and her husband had been watching television before we rudely interrupted the program.
At the bidding of our hosts, J. and I sank into overstuffed armchairs and explained our presence. As soon as she heard the horrible details of our fantastic adventure, the good wife withdrew into the kitchen and began to rattle the crockery. She emerged minutes later with ice-cold sodas and a plateful of thick sandwiches. We fell upon these like vultures at the kill, devouring all in minutes. We still had food in our packs, mind you, but stale bread and canned frijoles pale in comparison to thick sandwiches washed down with carbonated beverages. I could have used a beer, but beggars can't be choosers, and there probably wasn't a single bottle of the evil liquid to be found in that God-fearing household.
We finished our meal in no time, and our male host offered to transport us back to our vehicle. We bade farewell to the lady of the house and threw our packs into the trunk of the gentleman's car. Ten minutes passed before we pulled onto the dirt shoulder in front of J.'s wagon. We transferred our gear, thanked our driver, and hit the f#$%g road, pronto. My watch read 0100.
By 0200 I was immersed in a luxurious bath at my house. I meditated upon the incredible journey of the past day, and idly wondered if I would ever attempt it again. Was it worth the effort? Looking down, I saw every last inch of my body covered with scratches; an occasional bloody gash served to mark a more painful experience. I thought of those precious minutes spent solving the puzzle of the dihedral, and I fondly remembered the glorious view from the summit of the dome... physical discomfort meant nothing when compared to such memories.
J. and I spent eighteen hours in the field during our adventure. I include the time spent in the comfort of the Lakeside home; as in the sport of climbing, delicacy and finesse were required in that strange situation. The Christian Fellowship must be the AAA of organized religion: throw a few bills in the basket now, get a meal and a midnight ride later... "Just park your pagan @$$ in the nearest La-Z-Boy recliner, and my wife will serve the sandwiches while I go warm up the car..."
Eighteen hours in the field, and my acquaintance with J. was doomed forever. He never got over my verbal abuse, and the tenuous bond which joined us gradually deteriorated. We climbed together one last time a year after our adventure, but it just wasn't the same; neither of us was comfortable with his partner, and we did only one or two routes before going our separate ways. I never saw him again.
Eighteen hours in the field, and only three of those eighteen hours on the rock. One-sixth of the time spent doing what I loved, five-sixths of the time spent thrashing in the field. There had to be a better way. If I planned to climb that cliff again, I would have to devise a better method of penetration...
Seven years have passed, and I still haven't returned to the cliff. However, I know how I will get there when I'm ready to do it again. The plan is so simple, and yet so beautiful...
My friends and I charter a helicopter to fly over the dome. If a suitable landing zone can't be found, we rappel with full gear from the chopper onto the summit. A member of the support team sends down additional supplies (i.e. food and beer) for x number of days. Saying "Au revoir" to our support team (which can be reached at any time through radio or cell phone contact), we establish base camp on top of the dome. We take a 600-foot spool of caving rope and set up multiple "rappel lanes" down the face of the cliff. Taking only the essentials, we descend to the base of the cliff, where numerous radical routes await us. The rest I leave to your imagination: pick a climb, any climb, perhaps the f#$%g ramp this time...
Author's note: This story first appeared in 1992. Subsequent wildfires have reduced the density of the brush on certain areas of El Cajon Mountain. After one huge wildfire, I heard that climbers could simply stroll upslope where J. and I once labored for so many hours. Although I've hiked the truck trail many times since 1985, I've never returned to the cliff, not from lack of desire but from manifold distractions in that three-ring circus known as everyday life. Every time I lay eyes on the mountain, I think of that radical bushwhacking adventure back in the day... maybe once is enough in a man's lifetime. If I ever find myself in a position to charter a helicopter and spend a day or two doing nothing but rappelling and climbing the cliff, I'll be all over it, for the rock there is excellent and the views are absolutely magnificent.