Matt Niswonger

The high price of selling out

Self-portrait of Matt Niswonger’s shadow and his hanging camp high on the east face of El Capitan in Yosemite during a solo ascent in 2002. Shortly afterwards he gave up on his dreams and was a shadow of his former self for nearly a decade.

Self-portrait of Matt Niswonger’s shadow and his hanging camp high on the east face of El Capitan in Yosemite during a solo ascent in 2002. Shortly afterwards he gave up on his dreams and was a shadow of his former self for nearly a decade.

In early November 2002 I was climbing the sheer east face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Safely tied to my hanging camp over one thousand feet high, this was day four of a six-day solo ascent. The route was called Zodiac and climbing it alone was a personal dream. A mile away, my wife Cathy was standing on the valley floor watching me through binoculars. In her arms she held our baby son Nils. She could tell something was wrong so she pulled out her phone and called me. “I’m out of water,” I explained.

“Okay, so what do you want me to do?” she asked after a long pause.

“I want you to call YOSAR, or go talk to them in person. Tell them I will pay someone to hike to the top of the cliff and lower down two gallons of water using ropes. Tell them I’m on Zodiac and I’m 600 feet from the top.” The wind was gusting so I wasn’t sure she’d heard me. YOSAR is a common acronym for the elite team of search and rescue personnel that operate in Yosemite Valley, AKA Yosemite Search and Rescue.

My situation was dire but not desperate. In my mind I thought I could grind out an eighteen-hour push and make it to the top without water. But I wasn’t positive. The other option was to reverse course but this seemed enormously daunting given all the overhanging and sideways climbing I had completed in the previous four days. I wasn’t exactly sure of my next move so I just laid down on my portable ledge and rested.

My phone rang an hour later and a breathless Cathy told me that YOSAR wasn’t happy with my request and I should call them immediately at their non-emergency number. Here’s how the phone call went:

YOSAR: This is John Dill.

Me: Hello, this is Matt Niswonger calling you from Zodiac.

YOSAR: What’s your situation?

Me: I drank water about eight hours ago and I’m still two days from the top with no water left.

YOSAR: What’s your plan?

Me: I dunno, I was hoping you could send someone to the top and lower down a couple of gallons? My wife is in the Valley and she will happily pay that person $200. Sound good?

YOSAR: Negative, Mr. Niswonger. I need to ask you a question and I need a yes or no answer. Do you need a rescue?

Me: Like a full-on rescue with helicopters?

YOSAR: Yes, we only do one kind of rescue and that is the “full-on” kind. If we rescue you it will most likely be categorized as “failure to plan” because you didn’t bring enough water and you will be liable for the full cost of the rescue. Do you understand?

Me: Yes.

YOSAR: Do you want a rescue?

Me: No, I do not.

YOSAR: Okay, if you change your mind call 911.

Me: Okay, thank you. Good-bye.

Laying in my portable ledge I stared up at the sky. All of a sudden the reality of my situation hit home. Like a slap to the face it occurred to me that my dream of soloing El Cap was turning into a nightmare.

I looked at the beautiful meadows far below me on the valley floor. I was pretty sure that one of the tiny specks I could see was my wife and newborn son. I had a family now, for God’s sake. What kind of a father rolls the dice like this?

“I’m sorry Nils!” I yelled into space, even though no one could hear me. “Your father is a completely selfish A-hole who will spend the next 24 hours fighting for his life and drinking his own urine. Welcome to your family!”

A few minutes later Cathy called. Good news. She met some climbers in the Valley who agreed to lower water to me on a series of ropes tied together. I was saved.

About thirty hours later I made it to the top of El Capitan and met my brother-in-law who was waiting with more water. I was very happy to see him and also very somber. Earlier that day I had made a vow. I was done with the adventure lifestyle. Moving forward I was going to get serious and earn a paycheck – a big paycheck with awesome benefits for my family. It was time to grow up and get a real job. So that’s what I did.

Fast forward ten years.

A decade later I was sitting in a professional development seminar and dealing with the fact that I had lost my high paying job. About a hundred other participants were also dealing with career and relationship issues and the purpose of the seminar was to help people feel more  powerful in their lives.

Suddenly I was struck by an insight. The vow I made on El Cap to “grow up and get a real job” was a mistake. The problem wasn’t just that I had turned my back on climbing which was an activity I loved. What I actually did that day was completely sell out and turn my back on my own happiness.

Regardless of how noble I thought I was being, what I actually decided that day on El Capitan was to create a hollow life where I would sacrifice my own happiness for my children. I was moved to tears when I realized what a mistake I had made when I decided that good parents must be martyrs for their kids. My kids never asked me to make that decision. My wife never asked me to make that decision. But it had an impact on our lives every day for a decade.

So that day, sitting in the seminar, I unmade the vow I had made on El Capitan ten years earlier. In doing so I chose happiness for myself and for my family and this happiness has been growing stronger like a healthy vine ever since, restoring me to a more powerful version of myself.

Moving forward I have no regrets. I learned an amazing lesson on El Capitan: Never turn your back on your dreams.

Here is a poem about dreams by Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Welcome to issue #91 … our annual water issue. I hope you agree it’s packed with authentic wall-to-wall adventure.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to send comments to or share your thoughts when we post this on our website.

Matt Niswonger