"Dizzy Fingers" - El Capitan by Karen Darke

Karen Darke  © Mick Ryan - UKClimbing.com
Who is Karen Darke?

From the Speakers from the Edge website:

Despite being paralysed from the chest down in 1993, Karen has continued to pursue her ambitious programme of challenges with remarkable determination. Karen finds much of her inspiration through outdoor adventure. A keen runner and mountaineer before becoming paralysed in a rock-climbing accident, Karen has since pursued alternative ways to access the outdoors - kayaking, sit-skiing and hand-cycling.

Karen has hand-cycled in various corners of the world, including Central Asia and the Himalaya, the Pakistani Karakoram and the length of the Japanese archipelago. In 2006 she became the first paraplegic woman to ski across the Greenland Ice Cap, a journey of over 600 kilometres and in 2009, she is planning to kayak around Cape Horn.

In this UKClimbing.com article, she describes her 2007 ascent of El Capitan, partnered with well known climber Andy Kirkpatrick.

Andy wrote an account of this climb, which culminated in Karen breaking her leg and foot. You can read his article here: UKC Article

Karen climbing El Cap  © Karen Darke / Speakers from the Edge
Karen climbing El Cap

Dizzy Fingers by Karen Darke

At a break in the forest, we slowed the car and I saw it, almost blinding against the darkness of moss-coated pines and damp boulders. El Cap. I hadn't imagined it.

We lay in the meadow for a while, my wheelchair empty in the grass, watching tiny bright specks move over the granite. I couldn't imagine it.

The next morning, lashed to a rucksack, I held onto Andy's neck as he hitched me onto his back, then began to stagger toward the base. I thought off myself thirty years ago, only six, standing not far from here on my own feet, looking up with mum and dad and declaring I would climb El Cap one day. That was before I even knew what climbing was, before I'd become a climber, and before the accident that had seemed to put an end to childish dreams of rock. High places had been my world, my freedom, my escape. But I'd long got over any mourning and found new ways of enjoying all that climbing had given me; hand biking across the Himalaya, kayaking the Inside Passage to Alaska, crossing Greenland in a sit-ski. I hadn't thought about climbing for a long time.

As the sun beat down and we sweated, I gripped on, peering over Andy's shoulder. Either of us could end up hurt with this outrageous piggy-back. Before he put each foot forward, I studied the trail beneath them, playing a guessing game. I imagined, if it were my footsteps, where I'd place my soles, searching for steadfast ground. I liked it when Andy's feet went where I imagined I'd place mine.

I hid from the heat among the bags. I'd buried any threads of desire to climb again long ago, with memories of windy Scottish summits, the sound of my crampons scraping on rock, the snapshot smiles of friends, sunburnt and wasted in Alpine campsites, all sharing adventures and dreaming of more. The idea of climbing El Cap had seemed beyond me then, so how did I think it was possible now, with only my arms and some rusty climbing skills to get me to the top?

The sun had barely crept onto the wall by the time Andy had set off up Zodiac's curving roofed crack. Now he shouts “Safe.” What a crazy word to use. I could say no like I should have fourteen years ago, when I began leading a route in Scotland I knew was too hard for me, moments before the salty cliff slipped from my fingers, and I hit the rocks below. If I'd backed off instead, I'd still be walking now. I'd said yes then, and I said it now. I heard my brother's voice “Please don't go, we've nearly lost you once before,” as I watched myself, strangely detached, strapping the mountain-bike body-armour onto my skinny legs, readying for the first pull-up. Something in my nature had led to all of this. The part of me that pushes too far, had put me in a wheelchair; but the same part of me also wouldn't allow me to be disabled. It pushed me to try to be super-abled.

Thousands of pull ups...

By pull-up number ten, I still hadn't left the ground, my jumars sliding up but hauling only rope-stretch. The helmet strap dug into my chin, and the harness shoulder straps into my collarbones. There was so little of my body I could feel, but what was left hurt and I hadn't even started.

By pull-up number fifteen, I felt lift off. “Wooohooo. Off the ground!”

By pull-up number twenty, I was a spectacular twenty centimetres off the ground. I paused to look up: ahead appeared a marathon of pull-ups, though I knew it couldn't be more than sixty meters.

After hundreds more pull-ups, I'd re-graded the route, from its official A2 5.7 which didn't mean anything to me, to PU4000+ (over 4000 pull-ups). I was nearly at the portaledge, sweat trickling into my ears, my collarbones raw. I looked down, and felt a long way up, but when I looked up, I felt a long, long way down.

The rest of the day clenched into a fist of tension and strain: our five ropes were equally knotted, the four of us strung like spiders down the wall. By late afternoon, the sun hid behind the Nose, and the stone fell into shadow. We'd be climbing in the dark.

Andy exclaimed how exciting a pitch had been, but it was all the same to me. We were just somewhere, lost on the wall. I noticed other things instead. The swifts that cliff-dived, swooped by my ears, fast black jets of colour. The lightning white forks of quartz splitting the face. The clean shadow line that crept the day across the wall. The faint but acrid aroma of old urine that painted dark streaks. The gentle breeze, subtle but enough to set my rope swaying. I wished I felt like a child on a swing, not a foolhardy adult clutching at a rope. How much weight could one of those small metal bolts hold?

Sweaty days and long nights tied to the face. The third sunset: climbing parties were everywhere, their headlamp beams like Christmas lights strung across the wall, as they made their frantic late evening efforts to settle down for the night. I liked knowing we weren't alone.

Each day I'd watched the other climbers' progress, happy when we moved at a similar pace, disappointed if we made less ground. “You see that Korean guy fall off earlier?” Andy asked.

“Luckily no.” I spooned cold ravioli into his mouth as he lay exhausted on the ledge.

Bats squealed, and a mouse poked its head out from behind a flake. I'd never seen him look so wasted, his eyes deadened by effort, his hair gelled with sweat.

“He got up it in the end. He was on the crux. Iron Hawk. It's a hard route.” He swigged his end-of-day treat, a can of Coke. He said the fizz helped him revive. Tomato stains seeped from the corners of his mouth, making red blotches on his drained pale face. I understood that he liked to push himself to this state of exhaustion, to simplify life to this game of staying alive.

So had I.

Karen on the portaledge  © Karen Darke / Speakers from the Edge
Karen on the portaledge

Karen Darke in Camp 4, Yosemite, California.  © Andy Kirkpatrick
Karen Darke in Camp 4, Yosemite, California.
© Andy Kirkpatrick
“Mother fucking ropes!” I scream into space.

The wind rips my hair. My hair whips my face.

I'm spinning.

Dizzy. Disoriented.

Above, all I can see are twisted ropes, purple, green, blue.

I slide my jumar up but it jams.

I'm dangling in a void beneath a massive overhang. The wind roars up the face. A storm front moves our way.

“Fucking haulbags!” I hear myself shout, my voice weak with anguish. I watch myself lose it, and think it's pointless.

I'm seven hundred meters above the ground, way out from the illusionary comfort of the face, spinning, stuck, wrapped around the haul bag line.

“Unclip your safety line” Andy shouts from way above.

I hate him for saying it because I know it's what I have to do, but I don't to do it. It's the first step to untangling the mess. “Just do it Karen.” I talk to myself.

I can't do it. I let the tears spill the sweat and dirt down my face, taste them. I feel ashamed to be crying, to be losing it, to be weak. I'm aware the others must be looking down, willing me to get it together.

I unclip my safety line.

I spin to untangle it.

It's quiet above. I know they know just to leave me alone.

Finally my jumar is free to slide upwards again. I focus on it, and at my blistered fingers, torn cuticles, gripping tight on yellow rubber. I notice every movement. Slide, pull, breathe, wipe tears.

The world of El Cap has centrifuged into my dizzy fingers.

The wind died with the sun, the sky salmon and slate, turning to jet as night fell and the cold bit into the tender skin of my fingers. It was silent on our ledge except for us breathing and fidgeting for warmth, waiting for Andy to finish running the last two pitches together. Far, far below the traffic hummed like electric interference in the otherwise quiet night.

A shooting star fell.

“Safe!” echoed through the blackness. This time it was almost true.

My stomach did a sickly lurch as I slipped over the lip of the ledge, and swung into space one last time. I began to pull. The final pitch of PU4000+. It wasn't so scary in the dark. There was no up, no down, no yesterday, no tomorrow. There was just a yellow pull-up bar, with the perlon pattern passing through the jumar. The purple rope ran forever upwards, chasing Andy's voice into the heavens. Grit fell into my eyes. I closed them and kept pulling. My arms were exhausted and bloody, grating against the rock with each pull-up, but not as tired as my mind, fine threads of tension suspended in every synapse, tearing, ready to break. I needed Zodiac to end.

At last my rope ran out, but I was still hanging, my body rammed against the final rim, El Capitan unwilling to let go. I was bound in ropes, and whichever way I rolled, my hips or knees were caught beneath the summit lip. I rested my cheek on the cold coarse granite, belly-flopped over the cusp of the prize. I didn't cry. I didn't shout. I didn't even kiss the top. I just hugged the edge, closed my eyes, and waited for Andy to come and remove my shackles.

It began to snow.

I shivered inside the billow of my sleeping bag, Andy snoring beside me, a damp grey tarp wrapped around us like a shroud, the snow making a deeper and deeper blanket. Tomorrow would be a mammoth piggy-back down to the valley. I wiggled deeper into my bag, the cold seeping through me, and put my hands in my armpits to cuddle myself warm.

Andy must have wanted me to experience what he had on El Cap, eleven times before: that feeling of being free and strong, high on the summit, amid the fanfare of the peaks and towers below. Instead I wanted to to run away. Coming climbing again, I felt as though I had stepped back down into the tomb where I'd laid my walking-self to rest. It had stirred buried memories of a life I'd long left behind. I wanted to be back in my wheelchair, to be able to move on my own, in my own direction. As long as I kept moving, I wouldn't have to sit vigil by that tomb.

It had been amazing to climb again, and to visit what had once been, to untie stubborn knots, to dangle my feet about marvellous space, to again live a snap shot of a climbers life. Now I see clearly why I go hand-cycling, for miles and miles, why I can never turn around until I've reached the end of the road, why I push myself past the day's end into the darkness.

Karen's lecture tour dates are as follows:

27 Jan, 2009
27 Jan, 2009
Oh my God, that is so moving. That is why I don't want to climb.
27 Jan, 2009
Was this first published in Alpinist? I think I've read it before. (This isn't a dig, just curious) Very moving stuff.
27 Jan, 2009
Good article, thanks for that. And thanks to Karen for writing it of course! :o)
28 Jan, 2009
inspiring stuff
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