My First Time
By Lizzy Scully, Photos by Will Mebane (except for the first one)
Still 40 feet from the belay, I felt warm drops of urine trickle down my leg, over painfully swollen yellow jacket stings. After four hours, I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“I’ve gotta go!” I screamed at the top of my lungs as I tried to span out how to relieve myself. I stood in borrowed aiders (climbing ladders used for aid climbing), wedged into a barely-padded swami belt and laden down with enough metal to sink a small boat, and I’d never gone to the bathroom on a multi-pitch route before.
I’d wanted to reach the ledge before I peed. Bad idea. In fact, climbing a big rock wall in Yosemite National Park with no experience was a bad idea. But, like the rest of my life, I jumped into the endeavor without thinking about it, and now I suffered the consequences and lost some innocence along the way.
It all started the day after I arrived to Yosemite, when I met Tim—the aid climber from Seattle. He sat in the Camp 4 parking lot on a blue tarp drinking beer. Strands of scrappy long curls stuck out of a ponytail that fell half way down his back. With aluminum oxide glazed fingers, he created organized rows of pitons, cams, biners, and cans of fruit in sugary syrup.
“What ‘cha doin?” I asked him cheerily.
“Getting ready to climb a big wall,” he answered, emphasizing the last two words with pride.
“A big wall?” I asked, trying the phrase out for the first time. I sensed the air of importance surrounding those words, but at 21 I had barely been climbing two years, and the words meant about as much to me as “old age.”
A few days later, I found him again in Camp 4, this time smashed. “My partner bailed after the first pitch,” he said, mumbling. “Something about his wife … kids.”
“No way! Bummer dude. Hey, I’ll climb a wall with you! I’m psyched. I’ve never been on a wall, but I’m sure I’ll do fine. I’ve done some multi-pitch routes,” I said breathlessly. Why not, I’d done my first long route the day before. I even led the crux pitch of the Nutcracker.
It was settled. We would do the West Face of the 1000-foot Leaning Tower, spending one night on the wall.
Later that day I had my first lesson jugging and leading bolt ladders. That evening we rounded up the gear and other stuff I needed, and the following morning I was ready to take that next step into the “real” world of adventure climbing. I lacked experience, but I felt confident. After all, so far in my life things had been relatively easy. School was paid for, I rarely worked, and I still used my mom’s calling card.
The first change in my attitude occurred just before we reached the base of the wall. I stepped into an old log, and yellow jackets stormed around me, stinging me 17 times.
“Lose the bag!” Tim yelled as I tripped and stumbled over boulders trying to get away. Despite feeling sick from the poison, I decided to continue. Five hours later, after leading the first pitch with sticky, throbbing legs, I changed my mind about wanting to climb a big wall, but Tim suggested we reevaluate after drinking a few beers at the pizza deck. It worked—or the three beers did—and we hiked back up that evening.
The next day passed languorously, smoothly, and by dusk we sat on the Ahwahnee Ledge looking up at the black, towering wall above. Eating baked beans with our nut tools and settling comfortably in warm sleeping bags. Then the stars came out, and the night revealed wild shadows. I felt calm.
“Yesterday was a fluke,” I said to Tim. I loved this moment. Wall climbing was awesome!
But it didn’t last. The next day life began to suck. After very slowly climbing just two pitches, which I led because Tim had “already led them,” darkness fell, and I hung in my harness watching Tim make himself comfortable in a belay seat (like a hanging chair). I was to hang in my harness all night. My bloody chafed hips burned, so I asked him, “where’s the next ledge?”
“A few pitches up,” he replied.
“I’m going to keep going,” I said as I began to rummage around in the haul bag for my headlamp. I grabbed it, turned it on, and promptly dropped it. It spun like a shooting start down the wall, bouncing off a few ledges before it winked out forever.
With Tim’s headlamp I led and hauled through the moonless night. Twelve hours later I reached the bivy ledge. Flinging my hands on a stinking, sloping, butt-sized ledge, I found it sticky and not exactly wet, but definitely not dry. Our food and water gone, I sucked on a gobstopper to make the sandy feeling in my throat go away. It tasted like urine.
The next morning I woke up with my legs hanging off the ledge, and my neck aching from being wedged between the haul bag and Tim’s knees. When feeling finally came back to my body, I felt the stickiness of nasty wall crotch, but something else that was worse. My period had started two weeks early. Blood seeped through my pants and onto my harness and into Tim’s sleeping bag. He handed me his two remaining gauze pads and said, “Don’t worry about it. I’m married. I’m used to this kind of stuff.”
Three hours later I finally stood on the summit. The sun shone brightly and the air sparkled like a clean glass of seltzer. But I barely noticed because I was trying desperately to rub the Charlie horse out of my severely dehydrated legs.
The sun disappeared entirely by the time we reached the ground. It was the end of Day 3 or our two-day wall climb. Dumping the haul bags, we began the slow trek back to camp. A quarter mile from my sleeping bag and tent I heard Tim yell,” Watch out!” just as I fell into a ditch.
“I’ve sprained my ankle,” I thought as I lay uncomfortably in the dirt, my right arm bent in a painful, 90-degree angle. Pine needles poked me in the face, and I didn’t want to get up. I thought I should cry, but instead Tim hauled me to my feet.
Hours later I hobbled into my campsite, making a beeline for my tent. The searing pain in my ankle smeared a grimace on my face, but in the darkness no one saw. My neighbors congratulated me with offers of beers and hollers, but I couldn’t respond. I fell into my tent and didn’t wake up until well into the next day.
I originally published a version of this piece in a women’s climbing magazine called She Sends that I founded in the early 2000s. It’s one of my favorite articles, probably because it was one of the most notable and defining experiences of my life. This article created quite a furor when I published it. Numerous people—both men and women—accused me of being a radical feminist (which I probably was at the time). At first I was confused as to why the article bothered them so much. Then I learned it was because I wrote about being on my Moon, having my period, etc. It always boggled my mind that people should be so uptight about that subject. After all, I reasoned, it was something I, and all other women in the world, dealt with on a monthly basis.
Gallery: These photos are actually of me and Will Mebane climbing The Shield, a route on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. I don’t have photos from my first wall, but these photos are from the same time period and they give you an idea of what it’s like to climb a wall. Stay tuned for future articles about wall climbing. I’m heading down to Zion National Park in mid-February 2013 and will be climbing some neat big sandstone walls. And then this June through July I’ll be climbing big walls in Greenland and will reporting back to Live Stonewear about my adventures.