"Was I in for an education," says Benet, 30, a former feature writer for the Los Angeles Daily News who started reporting for PEOPLE only a year ago. Armed with a brand-new back-pack, a sleeping bag, plastic water bottles, hiking boots and an emergency first-aid kit, Benet headed out to Yosemite to take on the "Rock Chief," as El Capitan was called by 19th-century Native Americans. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he admits.
At the park, however, Benet hooked up with PEOPLE contributing photographer Barry Staver, a veteran adventurer who climbed California's Mount Whitney for last summer's story on a 146-mile ultramarathon (PEOPLE, Aug. 15). "I like challenging assignments," says Staver, 41, who has been shooting for PEOPLE for 13 years.
While Wellman and his partner, world-class climber Mike Corbett, scaled 3,000 of the 3,569 feet with ropes and pitons hammered into the mountain face, Benet and Staver took the less direct, 8.5-mile North Rim trail. Aided by two experienced climbers and a friend of Staver's who helped carry their equipment, they reached the summit six hours later. "The first thing I did," says Benet, "was take care of my blisters."
But the view from atop El Capitan was worth the discomfort. "It was stunning," Benet says. After a dinner of freeze-dried chicken, the team bunked down for a night under the stars. But serenity turned to bedlam the next afternoon as Corbett and Wellman appeared. "The whole place broke into cheers," says Benet, recalling the press reaction.
Days later Benet changed his perception of the climbers' personalities: "Corbett carried Wellman to the top of the mountain, but after spending time with them, Wellman seemed the strong, silent type, while Corbett seemed more vulnerable."
Now both Benet and Staver are ready to give climbing another try. "It's the kind of experience," says Staver, "that gives you incentive to keep in shape the rest of the year."