Jonas Abdo stood on the summit of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in mid-July. His perch was 3,000 vertical feet above where he and his climbing partner started four long days and four longer nights ago.
Those 3,000 feet marked the difference between what had been his “impossible aspiration” and what was now a reality. Because there he was, grinning and laughing — and crying — on the top.
He had thought this mass of rock was his goal — as it is for climbers from around the world — and now he’d start looking for a job and settle down into post-college life.
“I imagined that after summiting El Capitan, I would feel a sense of completion, that my restless soul would finally be satisfied,” he wrote in his blog.
“It seems that Yosemite will become not an endgame, but a training ground.”
DREAMS TAKE A WHILE
His dream was born, perhaps — and certainly unconsciously — when as a 6-year-old, Abdo started rock climbing at the Treasure Valley YMCA, and then at a climbing gym, belayed by his mother. (As a toddler, his mother says he would climb to the top of the fridge to raid the candy stash.) Abdo tried soccer, but it wasn’t for him. While a student at Boise High he was on a competitive climbing team.
He chose the University of Colorado for its engineering and physics program, but the fact that Boulder had its share of prime climbing rock was not to be overlooked.
However, his climbing suffered for three-and-a-half years, as Abdo immersed himself in physics and engineering classes. He wants to work in the space industry, researching ways to mine platinum, gold and other heavy metals in asteroids.
But his last semester he had a less-demanding course load. “I finally had time,” he said.
Every day, he’d go to class from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and to the climbing gym from 5 to 10 p.m. (“Rinse, then repeat,” he joked.) On weekends, he would climb with CU’s Alpine Club on treks to Indian Creek near Moab, Utah, or Sink’s Canyon in Wyoming.
“I didn’t actually get the hardest ones I was working on,” he said. “But I’m going back in later August to work on those.”
Abdo, 22, bought a truck and, utilizing the problem-solving skills he learned in engineering classes, outfitted the camper shell for the nomadic lifestyle of what he calls a “dirtbag climber.” After graduation, he took off.
“The original plan was to keep going until October,” he said, midway through the summer as he paused in Boise to visit his parents. “That might be extended a little longer.”
For Abdo, climbing is the apex of all sports.
“You need the perfect balance of physical strength, mental capacity and emotional stability,” he said. “A lot of times you have the physical capability to do the climb, but mentally you just can’t push yourself to do it.”
Or conversely, it takes a tremendous amount of maturity to decide it’s unsafe to continue and you have to turn back — for whatever reason.
“(And) you just have to accept that sometimes you’re not going to make a move and even it you don’t make it, you have to go up and try again. You just have to have that kind of persistence to keep trying.”
Those are life skills. But it’s that kind of investment that makes standing on a summit so much sweeter — that commitment of time, finances, energy, training.
“It can be a powerful experience for people to do something they’ve never done before and to show themselves that they can accomplish something that they didn’t think they could do,” he said.
It’s the same for Abdo. Each time.
Abdo’s mother experienced that, too. She has rheumatoid arthritis and in the years after she belayed her son, it was physically too painful for her to climb. When it was possible, her son took her climbing.
“When I got to the top, I cried. I was sobbing,” Susan Abdo said. “It was this culmination of everything I had been working on for the last seven years, to get my body pretty normal. It was a pretty big deal to climb.”
SEEING THE WORLD
When Susan was almost 30, she quit her corporate job, packed a backpack and took off for a solo trip through Asia and Southeast Asia for two years.
“It changed who I was as a person,” she said. “It makes you look at how you view the world when you have experiences like that.”
That’s what her son is after. He’s not rejecting settling down. But not just yet.
“I want to do both. I want to work an engineering job where I can do something that will help benefit society. But at the same time, I want to push myself physically and find out how far I can go,” he said.
“Like how big of mountains I can climb, how technical of peaks I can climb, and how hard I can rock climb.”
Even his father interrupted a 36-year career at Hewlett-Packard to go trekking in Nepal and the Himalayas for three months. His family understands travel even as they worry about their son’s job prospects or grad school.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” his father, Louie Abdo, said. “I never had that luxury. I had to work for a living right after college, before, during and after. … He’ll sort this out.”
DIRTBAG ROCK CLIMBER
After graduation, Abdo headed to Zion National Park for his first overnight on a wall on Moonlight Buttress, and then to Seattle where he learned mountaineering. For six days, the class learned ice climbing, crevasse rescue and how to traverse glaciers. They summited Mount Baker, then spent four days climbing Mount Rainier via a less-traditional route that involved ice climbing.
“The higher I climbed, the more euphoric I started to feel,” Abdo wrote. “With each step, it seemed that I felt more alive, and within me I felt the fire of adventure burning brighter and brighter.”
One of his team fell into a crevasse. It was an easy and successful recovery, but the experience reinforced the importance of knowledge, experience and awareness. They summited in a white-out, but that didn’t diminish the euphoria.
“Along with this success came a hunger,” he wrote. “On top of this beautiful, terrible, powerful and majestic peak, I was transformed. I had finally become a mountaineer, and I knew that more peaks lay just over the horizon.”
After that, came a trip to the summit of Mount Hood. He’s hard-pressed to articulate the why of climbing beyond the classic answer of “because they’re there.”
“It’s such a spectacular thing to experience,” he said. “A very emotional experience. ... You’re pushing yourself hard for extended periods of time. It also goes back to having this goal for such a long time and finally completing that goal.
“But at the same time, it’s kind of a fleeting experience. You get to the top and you’re like, ‘Yes, I did it. … Now, what’s next?’”
El Capitan, of course.
The route that he and his climbing partner, Hayden Robinson, picked is called “Lurking Fear.” They chose it, in part, because it was shaded from dawn till about noon; other routes were in full summer sun.
After the sun hit, they’d set up their “portable ledge,” which was their home on the wall; they’d rig up a shade and hunker down until sunset. They carried 130 pounds of water, food and supplies for overnighting and a full rack of climbing gear.
Among the challenges, Abdo said, was climbing a crack about 4 inches wide with only two pieces of protective climbing gear to fit the crack. The solution was a technique called “leap frogging,” in which they’d put in a piece, then the second piece higher, and remove the lower one.
“Eventually you’re 80 feet above your last piece of protection,” he said. A fall would have meant a 160-foot drop.
“This kind of climbing takes a lot of trust,” he said. “Trust in your partner, and you have to be able to trust yourself, but you also have to trust your gear — and trusting your own experience in placing the gear.”
On pitch 17, they reached “Thanksgiving Ledge,” where they celebrated with instant mashed potatoes, instant stuffing, canned chicken and instant gravy. The next day and two pitches later, they stood on the summit.
“Even when I get a job, I’m never going to stop climbing,” Abdo said. “I’m never going to stop chasing my goals and my passions. Climbing is something that’s just so important to me. I could never abandon it. It’s just a part of who I am.”
He hopes to find a sponsor, which could help with gear and financial support and enable expeditions and first ascents on peaks around the world.
Until then, Abdo has the rest of his summer mapped out: the Grand Teton, Cirque of the Towers in the Wind Rivers in Wyoming, then the Bugaboos and Squamish in Canada. That’s September. Then to the Sierras and back to Yosemite to tackle a couple of longer routes on El Capitan.
This winter — maybe Patagonia. Maybe.
He can always dream.
Follow the climbing
Read about Jonas Abdo’s adventures on his blog at climberist.com and @climberist on Instagram and on Facebook.