A selection from the new book, Yosemite Epics: Tales of Adventure from America’s Greatest Playground, compiled by ASJ contributor Matt Johanson. In a riveting tale, Noah Kaufman, a visiting med student who would later become an emergency physician in Yosemite, recounts how his first big wall experience, climbing El Capitan’s famous Nose route, plays out in miraculous fashion.
Climbers in distress from fatigue, weather or the difficulty of the task at hand rightfully trust their properly-used gear to protect against catastrophe. Many will lose sleep to learn that a single mistake can cause the most terrifying equipment failure imaginable. Such was the shocking near- death experience of three men climbing high on El Capitan in June of 1999.
Noah Kaufman, 24, was visiting the park for the first time. Then a medical student from Tulane University in New Orleans, he later became a doctor of emergency medicine at Yosemite Medical Clinic. Kaufman, his friend Bernard Guest and their new acquaintance who became known as “Falling Noah” started up The Nose (5.13b/A2) in search of a 34-pitch adventure. Few have returned from any climb with a more unforgettable and life- changing experience. —Matt Johanson
When I first arrived in the valley, my jaw dropped to my knees. I didn’t know anything like that could exist in the world. It was way more impressive than anything I had seen up to that point in my life. I was absolutely pinching myself trying to take it all in and not believing what I was seeing. Every minute I had to stop, get out of the car and look around. I couldn’t stop smiling. It seemed like the best place ever.
After my first year of medical school, I was psyched to get out and climb. A couple of friends and I came to Yosemite for a month, mostly to climb boulders like Midnight Lightning. I was so excited to be free that I dyed my hair green before I showed up in the valley. I knew the big wall of medical school and residency I had in front of me.
Up until then I had never really even considered climbing big cliffs, but suddenly it was obvious why those things had to be climbed, and I felt I would probably end up on one of them. One of my good friends who came along was Bernard Guest, who was more into technical aid climbing than I and he was really psyched to do a big wall.
“Do you want to do The Nose?” he asked.
“Which one’s The Nose?” I said. I really didn’t know much about aid climbing and had never done a big wall. We went to El Cap Meadow and he pointed it out.
I thought it looked incredible and we decided to do it.
Because we’d never been on it and since I had done zero aid climbing before, we went to the Camp 4 bulletin board looking
for another partner. We found a guy named Noah with long blond hair who looked like a rocker and we hit it off. He told us he was a 5.13 climber and had done The Nose before. “Perfect!” we thought. “This guy’s going to take us up and show us the ropes.” But it didn’t turn out that way.
We all contributed gear, racked everything and loaded our pig (climber’s slang for a haul bag). The Nose starts with mostly slabby climbing. I led the first pitch. On the first day we climbed four pitches to Sickle Ledge. Noah rapped to the ground to sleep that night. Bernard and I wanted to really experience the wall, so we slept on the ledge. Noah came back in the morning and we had a really fun day climbing the Stoveleg Cracks. We were leapfrogging and taking turns leading. I learned how to jumar and the three of us were getting our system down. But we only made it to Dolt Tower on the second day when we had intended to get to El Cap Tower.
At the end of day two we started to realize that maybe we didn’t have enough food and water. We thought the climb would take three days but we weren’t moving as fast as we thought we would. I
was pretty much the strongest free climber of us and I led as much as I could. I did some aid climbing and some French free now and then. Bernard was a methodical superstar. We thought Noah would be a lot stronger, but he was falling on things a lot easier than 5.13. Maybe he had done The Nose before, but it just didn’t seem like it. The rock doesn’t lie, and he really didn’t seem to know what he was doing. But neither did we and he was a nice enough guy so Bernard and I decided to roll with it.
Eagle Ledge is a decent-sized ledge but not huge, about a foot wide and five feet long. The three of us barely fit on it. At this point, you’re 18 pitches up and the climb becomes more vertical. Noah took the lead while I belayed him and Bernard hauled up the pig. Noah was jamming and lying back and he clips into a cam about seven feet up from the ledge. Then he climbs higher to about 15 feet above the ledge. He’d made some remarks earlier on the climb that seemed to show he was scared, and he looked insecure liebacking this pitch.
“Oh man, guys, I think I’m going to fall,” he said.
That was kind of a weird thing to say and Bernard and I looked at each other, confused. This guy told us he climbed 5.13, and now he seemed real scared and intimidated climbing 5.9.
Finally I said, “Okay, fall. You’re on belay, man. You’ll be okay.” So he did. What happened next took place in an instant but I could replay it in my mind for eternity.
He fell and he didn’t just slip off the rock. He jumped outward from it. Maybe he didn’t want to hit the ledge and break an ankle. But when he jumped out, he made the rope tight going from me into the one piece he placed, into a crack and around a sharp corner to his harness. Bernard and I were watching and all of a sudden there was an explosion. A cloud of sparkling dust filled the air and Noah fell straight down. He landed on the ledge and came to a complete stop. I can remember a lot of things in my life but nothing with more vivid clarity than that moment.
At first we thought that this fixed piece had blown out of the crack, but that wasn’t it. Noah had two feet of rope hanging from his harness. I was the first person who realized what had happened. The brand new rope serrated instantly on a sharp arête during his fall. Most climbers use a runner in that spot to protect the rope but Noah hadn’t done that. He had landed on the small ledge through sheer luck. He stood there unprotected and didn’t even know it. I grabbed his daisy chain and clipped him into the anchor with a carabiner without even stopping to think.
“Guys, the piece did not blow,” I told them. Then they both saw the rope’s cut ends, one on Noah’s harness and one on my belay. We had this long moment of silence while we all visualized him falling a thousand feet and becoming a ketchup smear on the slabs below. Noah’s shirt was off and I could see his heart pounding as he put it together. Then he knelt at the belay and started sobbing.
“Guys, I’m out of here! I’m done. Let’s bail, let’s bail now!” Noah cried. He was obviously horrified. I really felt for him but I was undecided about whether to keep going or not. But Bernard said, “Hell no, we’re going to the top.” He grabbed the serrated end of the belay rope, tied a figure eight into his harness, grabbed the rack and jumped onto the pitch. So we just kept going.
During the next three days we ran out of food and water so we started drinking whatever nasty stuff we could find. Most parties bring too much water and leave it behind, so The Nose has old milk jugs and half-full Gatorade bottles behind cracks and on ledges all over it. They had been sitting there so long that the water tasted like liquid plastic.
Other things went wrong. We dropped some aid gear and an ascender so someone had to use a prusik knot the rest of the way. Then the pig got stuck before the Great Roof and in several little chimneys. We had to rappel down and free it. And the whole way up, we were all scared to death that the rope would cut again. I was convinced that I would die before the top of the climb. Noah had almost died and at a certain point I got so tired that I became resigned to it. We were so inexperienced and in so far over our heads.
But we also saw some amazing things on the way. The climbing was immaculate and world-class. One day these huge raindrops fell. There was an updraft of wind up The Nose, and for a moment it froze all these globular, vibrating raindrops in midair. It was a really weird phenomena and one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.
After Noah dodged his incredible bullet, we made a compromise so that he would continue up the route willingly: he would not have to lead any more pitches and we would belay him even when he was jugging or hauling the pig. He was strictly along for the ride from that point on. Noah was pretty quiet the rest of the way. Somehow we made it, which is 100 percent thanks to Bernard. I learned a lot from watching Bernard stand up the way he did and say, “This is just one thing that happened, and it could have been a lot worse.”
We were psyched when we got up there. We took pictures and gave high-fives. It was definitely a bonding experience. But we weren’t done yet. A rattlesnake came along hissing at us and we couldn’t get around it. After all we’d been through, we couldn’t believe it. We threw rocks and finally got it to slither off. Then we had no idea how to get back down. Noah started taking us west, which is the wrong way. We hauled all our gear and followed him a while before we saw some other climbers trucking past us the other way. So we followed them to the East Ledges descent and finally got down that way.
All I could think about was Cheetos and a steak. We went straight to eat and spent all the little money we had on a carpe diem, mega dinner. I bought a Dr. Pepper and a chocolate milk. This experience was an exciting story to tell in the dining room though there were some climbers who never believed it. People began calling me “Catching Noah” and him “Falling Noah.”
I’ve never seen a rope cut like that one. It was a miracle the way he landed on the small ledge and that he didn’t tumble off it or even hurt himself in the fall. If it happened 100 more times, I really don’t think it would turn out that way again. I’m not a religious person, but it made me think that maybe he had a guardian angel. Maybe it wasn’t his time. I don’t know what, but there was something going on. I maintain my agnosticism about the whole thing.
That first big wall was the ultimate trial by fire for me, and I thought I’d never do another one, ever. The Nose was the most crazy, horrible, amazing, and way-too- intense experience I’d ever had. But of course I went back and I’ve done a bunch of big walls since. Now that I know what I’m doing, they’re a lot more fun.
The biggest lesson from it all was that I have to be totally competent and rely on myself in any kind of situation that involves life or death. Even if I’m with someone who is more experienced than me, I have to personally make sure that I know what the hell is going on, instead of trusting someone I don’t know to take me up The Nose, for instance. That experience gave me more self-reliance and confidence. Now I trust myself the most, because at least I know that I can be honest with myself, and if I get in over my head, then I can reach out to get help. I know I shouldn’t try to do something that I’m not prepared to do. That’s translated to my experience in medicine. I wanted to get through my residency without hurting or killing someone, and sometimes that meant admitting I didn’t know something that I should have known. So it also checked my ego and humbled me. The Nose puts you in your place no matter who you are.
I cut off about ten feet of the rope and tied it around my steering wheel. Several cars later, I still have it, and you can see the side that I cut neatly and the other side that exploded. I’m sure Noah has his end of the rope, too, though we parted ways and I never saw or heard from him again. Sometimes I look at the rope and think of him, that lucky bastard.
A Chicago native, Noah Kaufman is an emergency medicine physician in the South Lake Tahoe area, now practicing at Carson Valley Medical Center in Gardnerville, NV, and a sponsored climber for such brands as Metolius, Evolv
and Gramicci. You can read more about his climbing projects on his blog, tryhardclimbers. blogspot.com
“Yosemite Epics: Tales of Adventure from America’s Greatest Playground” is published by Dreamcatcher Publishing. Copies are available at their website, www. dreamcatcherpublishing.com, for $16.95.