Oakdale High School alum, Kait Barber, had big plans for her 21st birthday on June 27.
They were plans that included two things that she loves — the outdoors and her boyfriend Ammon McNeely.
Those plans also included Yosemite National Park and a lengthy climb up El Capitan with McNeely.
“I grew up backpacking and in the mountains at Yosemite,” Barber said.
She added that while the ‘El Cap’ climb would be her first, it would be one of many for experienced climber McNeely.
“He’s one of the best climbers on El Cap,” she said. “He has one of the first one-day ascents. He’s climbed it in one day many times.”
Barber’s goal of climbing the 3,000-foot vertical rock formation, however, did not include a one-day ascent. The couple would pace themselves appropriately, making the most of every moment as they made the climb.
Shortly before Barber’s 21st birthday McNeely sustained an injury, which prohibited the couple from making the climb at that time.
Less than one month later, with their sleeping bags rolled, “haul bags” packed and gear properly prepared the two climbers set off for a 10-day journey up the Mescalito route of El Capitan.
Admittedly, Barber acknowledged that a climb up such a large steep surface area is enough to scare the most experienced and seasoned of climbers.
“Once you carry everything to the base of the route, we say we’re committed,” she shared. “A lot of people get scared. It’s a vertical climb.
“He wanted me to have the best time that I could possibly have, so we took our time.”
Barber and McNeely ascended the granite surface by aid climbing or big wall climbing. With this type of climbing there is a leader and a belayer.
The “leader” is connected by rope to the “belayer” and essentially scouts out the route. If the “leader” should fall, the “belayer” locks off the rope, which essentially catches the leader’s fall.
The “belayer” remains at one spot also known as the “belay station” until the leader reaches either the end of the rope or a convenient stopping point. Through a pulley type system, using a separate rope, the belayer then sends all the gear up to the leader. The belayer then begins their climb to the next station.
In this instance McNeely assumed the role of “leader” and Barber “belayer.”
“We had between 300 to 400 pounds of gear,” Barber said. “You basically bring everything you need to survive.”
Included in their gear was their “haul bag,” 13 gallons of water, sleeping bags, as well as a “Porta-ledge.”
The “Porta-ledge” is a flat surface, which is suspended from and supported by the rock’s surface and allows the climber a place to sleep.
“Your whole life is on the ledge if you’re not climbing,” Barber said of the makeshift camp they would set up once they stopped.
“We were kind of enjoying ourselves up there. We were the only climbers on the wall, at that time of the year,” she added.
In an effort to avoid direct sunlight and due to the time of year, the couple chose to do much of their climbing from midday to early hours of the morning.
“It was about 90 degrees when the sun was on us,” she said.
Opting to climb later in the day presented the aid climbers with a unique perspective from the wall. Cliff swallows, wall frogs and peregrine falcons were among their neighbors as they made their way up the wall in the twilight hours.
“It’s very beautiful,” Barber said. “You look out and there are stars everywhere and it’s so quiet. It just puts things into perspective. It’s like nothing you’ve experienced before. There are so many moments that I can’t ever describe.”
She does, however, acknowledge being fearful at times.
“I was a little nervous,” the first time aid climber admitted. “Normal people, when they aid climb start with something shorter.”
The climber shared that the nerves were offset by her trust in the expertise of McNeely.
“It was a learning process all along the way,” she said. “Like when he fell about 30 feet and I had to lock off, that was a little scary.
“The emotions can get the best of you,” Barber stated. “You can always think of reasons to go down. The difference between some and others is continuing to go up. There’s a point of no return on a wall, which some people don’t get.”
During the 10-day climb, everything was not only basic … but cold and from a can. Meals consisted of cold raviolis, cold chili and countless ‘wall burritos.’
“For some reason we had a lot of wall burritos,” Barber said, explaining that the contents of a ‘wall burrito’ included refried beans, cheese, salsa, canned chicken and olives.
“We also took fruit, oranges, granola and beer of course,” she said. “The mission of the entire trip was to keep the beer cold.”
Midway through the climb, Barber admitted to craving Gatorade to the point of dreaming about it.
“The thing about wall climbing is everyone does it differently,” she said. “It was a learning experience … definitely a learning experience.”
Adding to the ‘learning experience’ was spending 10 days in isolation on the side of a rock with one other person.
“You really get to know someone, when you climb a wall,” she said. “In our family we’ve always said, if you really want to get to know someone go backpacking with them.”
After 10 days of climbing, Barber admits the true challenge was in standing at the top and hiking down.
“You don’t walk for 10 days, so when you get to the top you kind of have to get your land legs back,” she said. “Then you have to carry everything down, including your waste. That was hard. The hike off probably killed me the most.”
Looking back, Barber admits to being both happy and proud that she followed through with the climb.
“I’m pretty proud,” she said. “Without having much aid climbing experience, no training, I learned on the way.
“Once up here I realized how much fun it is up there and how amazing it is.”