Karen Darke and Andy Kirkpatrick: on El Capitan, Yosemiteby Andy Kirkpatrick Oct/2007
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Karen (www.karendarke.com) became paraplegic in a climbing incident 15 years ago ( a fall that also broke her skull, neck, ribs, and arms), but since then has undertaken many non-climbing adventures (kayaking the inside passage from Canada to Alaska, skiing across Greenland, hand biking over the Himalayas - www.byhandsandfeet.co.uk). When she asked me to ski across Greenland with her in 2006, my first comment was that she should climb El Cap instead, as it would be much easier (little did I know!!!).
After Greenland (a 600 km ski from coast to coast that took 28 days), we started wondering about El Cap. One problem was that the four paraplegic climbers that had climbed El Cap had all had lower breaks, meaning they could use their stomach muscles - crucial when it comes to doing several thousand pull ups. Karen on the other hand has no feeling below her ribs, yet a few hours spent jugging up a tree, using a Petzl Pro traction and assorted pulleys seemed to do the trick, even if it was pretty slow. The main problem now was that the lack of muscle bulk or control meant that a normal sit harness compressed Karen's waist to just a few inches - potentially very serous for anything but the shortest of hangs. Climbing El Cap could take us up to 10 days, so another option was needed. The next trial was in the Foundry in Sheffield (UK), were we used a loaned paragliding harness, which was ideal, acting as both a rigid seat, and harness. With this we went off and did our first climb; Kilnsey Main Overhang, which Karen jumared up with very little problem (Training at Kilnsey, photo). It looked like it could work.
Next up was something with a bit more spice; The Old Man of Stoer, a sea stack of the West Coast of Scotland. The approach was made by sea kayak, and the overall logistics were much harder, involving a bit of swimming on my part, plus some carrying of Karen. Moving Karen around by myself had long been one of the hardest parts of all our adventures, as being nearly six feet tall, and weighing 70kg, this was always at the limit of of safety and strength! Never the less within an hour of landing, Karen was on the top, having made a swift 60 metre free hanging jumar.
It was here though that I saw for the first time just how terrified Karen was hanging on the rope, and because of this I said that El Cap was off, after all if she was terrified on a 60 metre climb, how would she feel on a 600 metre one?
But being a stubborn kind of woman, Karen was not for giving in, and so having only climbed twice (if you ignore the tree, and two ropes in climbing gyms), we headed off to climb El Cap, only this time with the proviso that she would have a back up rope!
I'd always just assumed I'd be carrying Karen on my back too and from the climb, so on our first try I simply hitched her on my back (sat on a modified rucksack), and started staggering up to the base of El Cap. Within 100 yards I felt that there was no way that I could do it, my whole body feeling as if it was engaged in the most extreme form of weight lifting ever devised (carry 70kg up talus in extreme heat), but with lots of sit downs we made it to the base of our route (Shortest Straw) 2 hours after leaving the road...at which point I had to go back for one more haul bag!
I'd always planned to climb as a two, but after climbing El Cap the week before, and seeing the descent again (I'd climbed El Cap 11 times before), I realized that getting down would be the crux, and doing this alone would be very dangerous for both of us, if not impossible. Looking for some help, I went looking not for climbers with the right skills and plenty of muscle power, but someone I thought would be fun, and easy to get on with, plus be in to the idea of climbing with me a Karen (having a partner in a wheelchair would put most climbers off any route, let alone climbing El Cap.) We teamed up with an Australian female duo from the Blue Mountain (Tasher and Jemmer), would although having almost no big wall experience, seemed very keen to come along on such a crazy adventure. Unfortunately the climb didn't go as well as I'd hoped.
The climbing was slow (lots of dangerous climbing, including a pitch of new age hard aid with many metres of hooking with no gear), and working well as a four person team seemed beyond our grasp, with a lot of time wasted as we tried to figure out a way of hauling all our stuff. Karen was also pretty scared by the whole deal, especially the fact that very often all four of us were hanging from just three belay bolts. On the third day I woke up after having a nightmare that I translated as being about maintaining focus, and irreversible consequence (it was about my son being run over) and I suggested that I should either rap to the ground and come back with more water, or we should all bail. For the next hour we talked it over, with each of us trying to work out what was the right and wrong thing to do. Finally Karen realized her Thermarest had gone flat, and the girl's realized they'd inadvertently dropped all their food, so the decision was made, and we rapped 200 metres back to the ground.
Needless to say carrying Karen back down was easier on the legs, but much harder on the soul.
Once down we talked over our options, the Aussie girls would go off and do a wall by themselves, feeling guilty that they had slowed us down, and while me and Karen discussed if we should go back. For a few days we tried to recover, but something felt wrong, with a great deal of tension between us. Then one night, as we sat eating a pizza, Karen began to cry, feeling trapped by the fact that she was terrified to go back on the wall, but also terrified of running away from a challenge. Basically she had never been scared of anything in her life before, but this was different. I said we should just go now, and leave the Valley, and that El Cap wasn't going anywhere, but she replied that we should climb it, then go.
The slideshow, and the support and kind words from people like Alex and Thomas Huber, turned the tide and Karen suddenly found the strength to say let's do it, and as we stood there in Camp 4 making plans again Jemma and Tash came over and said they'd been thinking that they we should try again as a four. And so we did.
Four days after leaving the base of El Cap, at around 10pm Karen jugged up in the dark above a 700 metre drop. There was snow in the air, and a viscous wind blew her backwards and forwards as she literally inched up the rope, having made over 4,000 pull ups to get there. I lay on the top, exhausted after leading for the last three days, and watched as she grew nearer and nearer, her headtorch and speed making her look like a diver slowly coming up afraid of the bends. Finally she reached the rim, puling her self tight to the bolts until only her skinny legs hung over the edge. Jemmer appeared beside her smiling having cleaned the pitch. Without help Karen had to wait until I could help her fully onto the top, and for a second I was worried she'd loose it, being trapped by her useless legs one more time on the wall, stuck between heaven and what had often been very much hell. But instead she smiled and with with her usual grace, patience and tenacity, waited a little while longer until it was finally all over. An hour later it began to snow and all was left was getting down.
Just talked to Karen who's sat in Hospital in Aberdeen with a broken leg and foot, the result of a fall on our 7 hour wet and slippery descent from El Cap the following day. Never in my life have I undertaken such a psychologically and emotionally demanding climb, with the final broken bones coming as a shattering final touch. I have to ask myself what I got out of it? Hubris, self grandisement through another person's disability? I don't know. I also don't know why Karen climbed it in the end as well, but what I do know is that El Cap invariably breaks you in some way, but when you heal you know it was all good, and you always want to go back for more.
Thanks to the Hubers, Tom on the bridge, PTPP, Timmy O, Pete and family, Arun, Keith at YOSAR, Don Mabbs, Lee and Anne, Aberdeen A and everyone else who made a crazy ideal seem a little less crazy.
Andy Kirkpatrick is sponsored by Berghaus and Lyon Equipment - Petzl, Sportiva, Beal.