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Climbing Zodiac on El Capitan with My 13-Year-Old Daughter

Eliza Kerr  /  May 11, 2018  /  4 Min Read  /  Climbing

If you love something, set it free. Eliza Kerr watches daughter Calliope (13) as she lowers herself out and begins to jug the infamous Nipple Pitch during the first known mother-daughter ascent of the Zodiac, El Capitan. Yosemite National Park, California. Photo: Eliza Kerr

May 14, 2017, Mother’s Day.

Dear friends, yesterday I topped out on the Zodiac on El Capitan. Some of you have loyally and patiently supported me for almost six months while I prepared for and fretted about this adventure. Some of you have no idea what the Zodiac is. No matter. Thanks for being part of the journey now.

I’ve probably said this before, and if I’m lucky I’ll say it again: This was one of the biggest challenges of my life. You’d think it wouldn’t have been that big of a deal considering that I climbed the Zodiac in 1995, but this go-around felt entirely different.

Because this time, I did it with my precious 13-year-old daughter, Calliope.

It was also different because I am old now and know better, physically and mentally. I know about death on big walls. And because there was no strong, knowledgeable dude who could bail me out.

It started coming together when our friend Miranda said she’d join us. Miranda is a graceful, easygoing woman, the kind of person you trust and want to spend time with. She also happens to be a badass free climber with a lot of experience.

My training began in earnest in January: relearning how to aid climb, asking every experienced wall-climber friend I have about the details of seamless hauling, portaledge setup, pitch-by-pitch pitfalls. These friends generously and patiently talked me through detail after detail. My husband, Nate, began helping me prepare gear and soothed me during anxious moments, gracefully finding the balance between being there when I needed him but knowing I really wanted to do this on my own. Most important, he believed in me.

Fast-forward to this past Tuesday. We had six pitches fixed and pre-hauled. We were as prepared as any wall climbers in the course of history have ever been (how did I do it on the fly while living out of my VW 20-plus years ago?). And still, I was feeling afraid and anxious—and not in a good way.

On Tuesday afternoon, my friend and wall mentor Erik Sloan stopped by. He had been patiently easing me through each question and concern since January. How do I pass a knot while hauling? What’s the difference between a sky hook and a grappling hook? Which bivies are best in a storm? But on Tuesday, he shared his most important wisdom: He told me he knew I was as ready as I ever would be. It was time to put all worry aside and move into a place of appreciation, trust, faith and gratitude.

In the course of that conversation, my energy shifted completely. I got totally excited, in a good and grounded way, for the climb. And I fell into a place of surrender, knowing that everything would be alright, no matter what—life or death included.

As we reached the base of the climb early Wednesday morning, I saw Yosemite and El Cap with fresh eyes and an open heart, yet again. God, it’s a beautiful world we live in. The gifts are so abundant.

Calliope rigged herself and started jugging up the 700 feet of free-hanging fixed line. I watched in awe, with complete confidence in my little girl, knowing she had the calm mind and technical skills to do this. And so did I.

Day One was long. So much work. Miranda and I each took proud lead falls. We all arrived at the top of pitch 9 just before dark, grappling with portaledges and enjoying cold tasty bites under a bright full moon. Exhausted. God, was it fun though. We were doing it!

Climbing Zodiac on El Capitan with My 13-Year-Old Daughter

Calliope and Eliza snap a pre-dinner selfie on their portaledge at Peanut Ledge. The Zodiac, El Capitan. Photo: Eliza Kerr

Day Two. We woke up to sore muscles but we were in the flow. It was a beautiful sunny day with the flooded Merced River reflecting boundless waterfalls and granite below. After a full second day, we were grateful that our bivy that night had the tiniest little ledge. It felt so good to have our feet rest on something solid.

Day Three. We woke to dramatic swirling clouds, dropped temperatures and a 40 percent chance of rain. It felt like Patagonia. We only had three pitches to the top, but that sounds quicker than it actually is. Calliope was so stoic and positive; it was hard for Miranda and me to complain too much about our freezing hands as we led the pitches.

As we finished the last pitch Nate popped his head over the top, there to greet us with a strong back and a warm thermos of tea. I was the last to jug up the final pitch, and I had a moment to myself as my emotions began to seep out, knowing we had made it safely.

You could say that it would have been a good day to die, but it was not our day. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the people in my life, for the stone and river and sun and beauty we live with, and for the mystery of creation that I could so tangibly feel—right then, right there.

This story first appeared in the Spring 2018 Patagonia Catalog

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