This is a guest post by our friend Wayne Willoughby, an adventurer overcoming the struggles of Post Polio Syndrome. Check out his other blogs, Wayne Willoughby Takes on the Chief Part One and Part Two.
Contracting Paralytic Polio in 1953 has complicated every day of my life that has followed. Metal leg braces, childhood and teenage surgeries, leg and body casts, each followed by periods of recovery were the norm. The worst of the challenges that I faced however, by a wide margin, is Post Polio Syndrome, which began for me around 1963. PPS is a debilitating condition that causes pain, fatigue and atrophy and I dealt with the effects, but never knew what the cause was until the mid 80’s. I look back and marvel at my body’s resiliency to withstand the incredible adversity it faced. In spite of these complications, and other injuries in the Fall of 1990, I managed to do my first big wall, an ascent of Zodiac on El Capitan. Plans were in the works for a continuation of similar adventures, but before I was able to actualize them, the most serious injuries of my life occurred the following spring. Devastated, with a greater degree of disability than I had ever known, and in constant, unrelenting pain, I worked as hard as possible to regain a fraction of my previous physicality. By ’94, I felt ready for an ascent of D1 on the Diamond with my friends Michael O’Donnell and Bill Whitt. Though I had to be carried much of the way in and out, and we were hit by a storm that brought 110 mph gusts of wind, snow, sleet and hail, we managed to top out in Patagonia like conditions. No one has ever felt more blessed or happier to be on this earth than I was day that, at the top of D1 – in the middle of one of the fiercest storms that I have ever witnessed.
The fall of that year found me in El Cap meadow watching Lynn Hill free the Nose in a day. While there, I ran into my old friend Steve Schneider. Steve had been working on freeing Lurking Fear, and with partners, had completed a great majority of the route. Within minutes we were formulating a plan for an ascent of Lurking Fear, with Steve leading and me cleaning. The approach up to the West Face where the route begins found me taking many hard falls (when I wasn’t in a crab crawl mode). By the time we had reached the base of the route, I was already covered with bruises, and we had yet to begin the climb. We did the route in two and a half days, with Steve gracefully free climbing up each pitch, and me flailing about, as I struggled to clean the gear, especially on the blocky broken pitches, of which the route has more than a few. By the time we reached the top, my atrophied right leg was so worn out from asking so much of it, that it simply refused to bear any more weight. I free crawled the 600 feet of slabs above where the route tops out, and then crab crawled all the way to the top of Zodiac, where Steve and I bivied. He and our mutual friend Hans Florine had their sights set on doing the Nose, Lurking Fear, and the West Face, all in a day, the following week. The conversation, as he spoke about the techniques that they would employ, and his uncertainty over whether or not they would be able to pull off all three in less than 24 hours, was incredibly inspiring.
I dreamed of doing the Captain in a straight push myself, from that day forward. Almost exactly four years later, after a handful of other El Cap ascents, and pushes of other walls, I found myself doing the fifth ascent of Bad Seed, with Hans Florine and our friend, the late Brian McCray. At one point, we got off route, and that mistake ate up a lot of time, putting in doubt what had been a record time pace. We all dug down deep to find whatever it would take to make up for our slow pitch, and topped out after 19 hours and 12 minutes. This was about 45 minutes faster than the previous record, and the only other time anyone had done the route in under a day. The years came and went, and though plans were made for a push of Lurking Fear, nothing ever came of them. I kept busy climbing other objectives, as well as overcoming additional serious physical setbacks. By the time the 20th anniversary of my ascent of Lurking Fear with Steve rolled around, I had managed to do over 30 walls, and a great many of those had gone in a push, with most in under 24 hours. This was something that I would have never imagined accomplishing when I stood in El Capitan meadow as a 5 year old and watched the first ascent team slowly crawl their way up the wall.
At 4:30 AM, on the morning of Dec 7th, 2014, I met up with my friends Mickey Sensebach and Eric Walden in El Cap meadow for what we hoped would be my long awaited one day ascent of Lurking Fear. Eric is an experienced and all around solid trad climber who is part of a team that holds a speed record on El Cap. Mickey had done pushes of the Captain previously, including one of Tangerine Trip with myself and Kristoffer Wickstrom in January of this year, but had yet to get in one in under 24 hours. The fact that he is only 17, and has been climbing for a relatively short time, would make this goal seem unlikely, especially being up there with someone with as great a degree of disability as myself. This fact only provided added motivation to to our team to prove conventional wisdom wrong. There were other forces working against us as well. The storm that had hit the West Coast in the days before this climb, and the next system that was moving in cast doubt on whether or not we were going to be able to make our attempt at all. We would need a window of dry, warmer than normal weather that would last long enough to dry off the rock, and to allow us to get to the top and back down before the next front moved in. We watched the forecast and Doppler radar closely, and just when it seemed like we were going to have the window that we had hoped for, the forecast would change. There was no small amount of doubt in our minds about whether or not we were going to be able to make our attempt. The upper pitches of Lurking Fear, with 600 feet of slabs directly above them, turns into a huge watercourse when there is any significant amount of precipitation. As we were bringing just the essentials, and not porta ledges, sleeping bags etc. we were going to have to blast to the top before any rain arrived, or not go at all. On Wednesday the 3rd, the forecast changed, and our hoped for small weather window finally arrived. I finished my packing that evening, and on the 4th and into the early hours of the 5th, I did the drive down Hwy 5 from Seattle to CA. There was a large moon in the sky that appeared in between the rain clouds in Southern Oregon and into Northern California, and it was a heartening sight to see quite a bit of snow on Mt Shasta after California’s 3-year long drought, illuminated by the late Autumn moonlight. The weather was clearing, this long drive was going to be well worth every second that it took, and the knowledge that we were going to be able to attempt this climb after all carried me down the highway with a huge smile on my face.
Driving into the deserted Yosemite Valley in the moonlight in the early, early AM on Sunday, I could see how dry the route looked, and that knowledge buoyed my spirits in a way that was only accentuated by the stars that filled the sky, and the lack of clouds. I only got to enjoy the surroundings for a short while before Eric and Mickey showed up, just as excited as I was, and we were on the move. The approach went by very quickly, relatively speaking. I knew the trail up the long slope to the third and fourth class section of the approach well, and took advantage of little tricks that I have learned over the years to make my way up in ways that require finesse and technique, rather than using just my strength to power my way up, saving energy for the long climb ahead. I free climbed most of the sections of the three hundred feet or so of 3rd and 4th class that leads to the base of the the route. Marveling at the progress that I was blessed to make compared to when I struggled up there two decades previously. Which is not to say that any of it was what would be considered particularly easy, or without risk for someone with my physical reality. A fall on any of the steep sections would well have led to a very, very long fall. Mickey and his 6′ 5″ frame was there to spot me on the trickiest parts, and we arrived at the base of the route a hundred or so feet from the buttress feeling confident and incredibly psyched! Eric took off on lead for the first block of pitches, climbing with a grace and effortlessness that allowed him to move up his pitches smoothly, and equally importantly, quickly. Mickey cleaned the gear Eric placed, and I jumared alongside him in sections, above him for others and below him occasionally. After Eric’s first block, Mickey took over the lead, and as the sun rose higher in the sky we moved up the route in good style, reveling in our surroundings, and the warm sun that made the cold December day far more pleasant than it would have been without it. Splitter cracks, incredible views of the Ribbon Falls Ampitheatre, the Valley below, the high country and Half Dome as you get up higher on the route made the 19 hours and change that it took us to climb the route seem to go by quickly. Our team made history with the first December adaptive ascent of El Capitan, Mickey got in his first of what I am certain will be many one day ascents of the Captain, and it wasn’t lost on any of us how profoundly powerful an ascent this was. Looking back, it all seems especially enjoyable now that the glorious suffering is behind us!