Remedial Big Wall climbing

A lot of wall climbers I know are usually half-drunk on the ground anyway. I think we have a hard time dealing with the mundane. When I left Yosemite, it took me years to adjust to an apartment where I had too much room and no big inanimate objects in my routine.

Goals in ordinary life are never as pure or powerful as a big wall. --John Middendorf

The executive summary:

We went to climb Leaning Tower, one thousand feet of continuously overhanging granite first climbed by Warren Harding in 1961.

The approach went ok, the traverse out to the beginning of the route is scary. Doing it with the haul bag, even with fixed lines, was the free crux of the route for me.

The first day:

We are slow beyond belief. About 4 hours a pitch. The first couple of pitches are a mess of old fixed gear. The cheat stick sees heavy use. We make the ledge around 7 or 8 pm. The ledge is good, we get some sleep, more than we did the night before.

The second day:

We are even slower. Awkward traversing aid. It takes us most of the day to lead two pitches. It gets dark on me midway through 7. I find the darkness greatly abates the intense terror I've been in since we started. Steve decides to do 8 and 9, so we can sleep at 9. He starts at about 7 or 8 ish (pm), I end up jugging at first light.

The third day:

I lead the last pitch. Its not too bad. Steve tops out. The top is very cool. The decent goes extremely smoothly until the crossing of the final boulder field to the parking lot. We get lost and an epic bush walk ensues....

And now, for the terminally bored, here is the long version:

The weather gods were smiling, so it was time to form a plan. The first couple attempts at talking people into things failed (due to either judgment or schedule issues) but eventually Steve agreed to try Leaning Tower.

The plan seemed straightforward: on Sunday, drive up and do the approach. On Monday, climb to 4 plus fix 5 and 6. Then on Tuesday, top out and descend. Unfortunately, reality would intervene in our plans.

The first ritual was "the discovering of things left behind" Casualties: Steve's fifi, my helmet, and a set of locking biners. The fifi and the lockers were sorely missed. I would rather have had my helmet, but given that the route is almost continuously overhanging, there wasn't that much risk of anything landing on me.

The second ritual was "combat for ownership of the route" Its a Sunday afternoon in February, I'm stunned when this guy walks over to me and says "he hopes I'm not planning on doing the West Face." Bummer, thats all we need is a crowd on the route. The posturing begins: "Umm, yeah, we were planning on it, what are you going to do?" In a coup, I manage to talk these guys into doing the Lost Arrow Spire instead (even though they lacked a #4 camalot to aid or protect the 10d crack, if push came to shove, I might have given them Ian's which I happened to have, but they backed off without the booty).

The preliminaries taken care of we begin the ritual of "schleping all our junk to the base of the route" The approach took us about an hour and a half. It consists of crossing a boulder field and then walking along the base of the rock. The view from below is impressive. Hundreds of feet above loom roofs and corners. Its very strange to stand at the base and contemplate being up among those features, not someday, but tomorrow.

Looking up at the route a lot of my apprehensions and fears dissolved. I was excited to be there and ready to go.

Setting up camp consists of dumping all our junk at the level pile of rubble where we'll spend the night. Then, its off to check out the start of the route. The route begins by traversing out on a ledge. The further out on the ledge you go, the further the ground drops away. At the point where the route goes up, we're about several hundred ft off the ground. I really don't like this, Its gives me no chance to adjust to the exposure. At the first move we are already looking at big air.

There is one tricky move on the traverse, so Steve and I fix a rope. Doing this move the next day with the haul bag on my back is the free crux of the route for me.

I don't think either of us slept much that night. For one thing, the skree we were bedded down on was damned uncomfortable, but mostly we were tense. Steve has never succeeded on a wall and this is my first serious attempt. Both of us were still tossing and turning when the alarm went off at 5am.

Day 1:

Steve had chosen the odd pitches so he got to start. He led pitch one without any trouble. This pitch is deceptively overhanging. You watch the climber and it doesn't look that bad, but keeping and eye on the free hanging haul line, you see it moving farther and farther out into the void from the starting ledge. At the end of the pitch the rope hangs a good 30 ft out over a several hundred foot drop.

We had hoped to do between two and three hours pitch, but it took Steve three and a half hours just to lead the first pitch. This was our first tip at how amazingly slow we were. I don't mean just a little bit slow, I mean really really slow.

After jugging the first pitch we did the change over at the hanging belay and I took off to lead pitches two and three combined. These pitches are mostly fixed, but the gear is almost exclusively trash. Manky spinning loose 1/4" bolts, rivets, odds and ends bashed in over slings, etc... Several of the pieces are hangerless bolt studs that have been banged upward to make them fairly positive when a wire is looped over. I used a long cheater stick to bridge some of the places where the fixed gear was blown but even so I struggled. I did several hook moves (my first), and actually got to place an occasional piece of gear.

Some people like aid climbing, and some people don't. There are lots of things wrong with it, but I think its actually pretty fun. Each move is a little puzzle. Trying to figure out how to get from here to there, while the seriousness of marginal piece after marginal piece mounts. It brings out the tinkerer in me. Hmm, I wonder if a nut will stay in that flare, or maybe a half-in cam, or maybe I should just top step past, or maybe... your mileage may vary.

I don't know how long it took me to lead this pitch, but it was a long time, maybe 4 hours? The reason I don't know how long it took is that I didn't want to bring my good watch on the climb. So, I went to Longs to buy a disposable watch. I should have just gotten a $5 casio, but I decided to splurge and get the $7 Tozai because it was labeled as a "sport watch." I should have been suspicious when the buttons were labeled a, b, c, d but the real tip was when I had to read the directions to set the time. This watch is demonic trash. One of its features is that it likes to go into "date mode" where it will only display the date. With hours to kill at belays, I tried all combinations of buttons to get it out of date mode, but nothing works. While climbing or jugging the watch randomly changes modes but never on command. The watch was in date mode when I ended pitch three, so I have no idea how long it took.

Halfway through Steve's lead of the 4th pitch it got dark and out came the head lamps. I actually found the dark soothing. Not having to deal with the distance to the ground was a big relief. All through this climb I was fine while leading, ok while jugging, but a basket case at the belays. Just standing there for hours at a time all my concerns would eat away at me. How strong are these bolts, what noise would my body make as it hit the ground from this high, what am I doing here, am I cut out for this, etc... The doubts gnawed at me until I would just close my eyes and press my head to the rock to get it together.

Steve didn't have any problems with the 4th pitch until the very end. There, a bolt has broken and there is just a little nibble sticking out. Steve tried our Fish Doubloon (essentially a slung washer with a sharpened grove) but it popped and he took a short fall. The obscenities bounced across the walls in the dark as he screamed. It was an eerie effect. He tried a bunch of other things but eventually went back to the doubloon and was able to make it go. The free climbing onto the ledge wasn't as bad as we thought it might be, but you do have to commit to it.

I found jugging this pitch in the dark to be serene and relaxing. The headlamp compresses your whole existence down into what its beam can illuminate. It was fun that is until I got to the traverse. When you are the follower on an aid climb you don't reclimb the route the way you do free climbing. Instead, you ascend the rope with mechanical devices, called jumars or jugs. This is all well and good on a route that goes straight up, but once something traverses its a big problem. The rope runs through pieces of gear clipped to the rope. When the route traverses, the rope tensions the piece and its difficult to impossible to unclip it. Solving all this is a scary juggling act of unclipping and clipping your attachments to the rope.

Ahwanee ledge wasn't as big as I was expecting, but it is pretty nice. About six feet wide and ten ft long but most importantly it slopes in. You hear all these stories about people not being able to sleep on walls, not so for Steve and I, we were out as soon as we hit the bags. Slept better there than we did on the ground.

Day 2:

We rolled out of bed slowly at 7. In retrospect, we should have gotten up a lot earlier, oh well... Pitch 5 traverses to the right. The first couple of moves were a bit tricky, but then it was pretty mellow. Not so to follow though, I had done my best not to back clean, but still had to leave a couple big swings for Steve. As usual, all this took a long while.

The anchors at the top of 5, were the only ones on the route I wasn't really comfortable with. There was one good bolt, and then a bunch of junk. I dutifully clipped it all, but the lack of another solid bolt ate away at me while Steve led the next pitch.

Other than our usual slowness, pitch 6 was uneventful. A left leaning bolt ladder, Steve used the stick to clip past a couple of trouble spots and I cleaned without too much difficulty.

Two pitches, easy ones even, and it was already 5pm, how could we be this slow!!! At the top of 6, we discuss strategy and decide we'll climb through to the bivy at 9 even though it means we're going to be doing a lot of it in the dark.

As I dutifully start up 7 I mention to Steve that I'm almost glad we'll be spending Valentines Day on the wall, it will keep me distracted, from my poor excuse for a love life. Steve replies, "What, you mean tomorrow is Valentines Day!?! Oh boy, I'm in a lot of trouble.... Climb faster!"

Midway up 7 it gets dark on me and I send down for the headlamp. This was probably my favorite pitch on the route. Due to some dropping and fixing we are short on pieces of the correct size, so I have to backclean significant runouts. But, the dark blankets me in a odd sense of security. With just the light of my headlamp I find a peaceful rhythm. All the fear and tensions melt away as I move up the pitch in what now seems like a single repeated move.

There is one tricky section at the top the pitch. Just over a bulge I can see the anchors but there are no good placements. I try a brass micro nut but as I ooze my weight on, it rips 3" down the tiny crack. Hmm, maybe not. I get out the big Pika hook and finally think I have it well placed, but as I weight that, it shifts and blows sparks into my face lighting up the night. Whoa! fireworks. Eventually I get a tricam in a pocket to stick and then scramble the last couple of moves to the anchor. The anchor here is 4 new, shiny, bomber bolts. Ahh, paradise...

After I fix the rope and haul I look up and am surprised that I can't find any stars. It takes me a minute to orient myself, but then I realize we are underneath a huge roof. I flash my headlamp every which way looking for a camouflaged weakness, refusing to accept that the route goes over the roof. When Steve arrives we go through the ritual together and finally agree in dismay that the route seems to go straight up the roof.

In the pitch dark Steve leaves the belay. He runs into trouble almost immediately. A piece pulls and he takes a short fall. Then, as he is sorting himself out he realizes the block he has been aiding on is loose. Rattled, he decides to free the next couple of moves but then gets tangled in his aiders. I watch helplessly from the belay as he repeatedly tries to get his foot on, but keeps getting more and more tangled. Finally he gets a solid piece in and we both breath a sigh of relief. Slowly, Steve works his way up to roof and then, after a psyche up session, starts up it.

While this goes on, I'm struggling with the task of staying awake at the belay. Thankfully we're belaying with a gri gri, otherwise we'd be in big trouble. I keep nodding off only to jolted with adrenaline as my harness catches me and I realize where I am. I take to doing errands to give me something to think about. I coil and uncoil the haul line countless times, repack the haul bag, etc... A good hour is spent trying to get the demonic watch out of date mode. Finally it displays the time of its own volition. I call up to Steve, "Guess what time it is," He yells back down hopefully, "One?" "Ummm, no, five am" I shout back up.

We've been climbing all night!!

Day 3:

At the belay, I've been dreading cleaning this roof. With hours to dwell on it, the fear is really under my skin. I keep telling myself that this is the last pitch I ever have to jug. All night I've been taking solace in the fact that at least I'll be able to jug it in the dark, without having to deal with the exposure. But even that hope is stripped away as dawn breaks and Steve shouts down "Off Belay."

Resignedly I head up the rope. Cleaning the roof is unnerving. As I unclip the pieces I swing out into the void. I'm ok as long as I'm facing the wall, but when I spin facing out I close my eyes and deep breath to keep it together. I'm making good progress until I get to a point where Steve has stick clipped off a Lowe Ball. The piece is his favorite and he'll be really bummed if I leave it behind. I stand in a sling on the pin below to unweight the Lowe Ball. Once I get it out I start to lower myself out off the pin to avoid the big swing. I'm almost done when my hand slips as it hits the knot in my lower out sling. As I careen out my foot gets girth hitched in the sling and I find myself suspended by one foot hanging upside down staring out the ground 2,000ft away. I almost panic until I realize I'm really stuck and then the humor of the situation takes over. It takes me a good five minutes to reclaim my foot. The rest of the cleaning is uneventful.

At the belay I find Steve napping in his sleeping bag. I relax for a few minutes and start up the final pitch. The roof at the beginning is really awkward. I get frustrated and know I should just free the thing but I'm in aid mode and struggle through it placement by placement. The rest of the pitch is straightforward. The route ends very dramatically, you're traversing in the shadows under a roof and then the roof ends and you flop onto ledge into the sunlight. The ledge is picturesque, with a boulder and a tree, it looks manicured, surreal.

I bake in the sun waiting for Steve to join me at the top. I savor the satisfaction of haven taken on a task and accomplished it. I'm burnt, hungry, dehydrated, and for one tranquil, fleeting moment content.

The descent goes smoothly, the rappels and route finding are easy. As we touch down from the final rappel the sun leaves us and the headlamps come out one final time. Of course, there is one more ritual left, that of getting lost, and I don't fail us. Negotiating the final boulder field before the parking lot we get hopelessly off track and end up navigating by the sound of Bridalveil Falls. 8pm finds us back at the car about 75 hours after we started.

Steve's response to my trip report:


Executive summary:

It was steep, big, slow, and fun. I agree with the stuff Evan said.

The long version

It was fun and interesting to read Evan's writeup of our learning experience on the West Face of Leaning Tower. It was fun to hear the story told from his point of view, as the same event is never quite the same experience for two people who were there.

I was amazed at how similar our feelings about it were. I would not have been surprised to find we had been feeling quite different things at various points on the route, but I would have told the story in very much the same way. The only big difference would be that I would have been struggling to stay awake at the belays where he gave the details of the lead, and described the leads while he was trying to stay awake!

Anyhow, yeah, we were swoooooow. Real slow. but, heck, neither of us has been doing alot of aid climbing lately, and it was our first successful big wall, and it was in Winter with lots of climbing in the dark (which i kinda enjoy, it just goes slower). So we have lots of good excuses which Evan forgot to mention.

The other thing I would add was how much fun we had. Despite being disappointed with our performance speed wise, and being way nervous before the climb and the usual tired, hungry & thirsty on the climb, I think we both kept a good attitude, and certainly enjoyed being where we were. I sure got an amazingly good feeling from getting to the top, and enjoyed the climbing immensely. I sure learned alot. Like don't forget your fifi hook, a hammer for cleaning even on hammerless aid climbs, and a belay seat. And keep moving, and move faster...

Oh, and I do have one other nit. Evan took all the credit for our little evening stroll in the woods and boulders. I must claim at least some of the glory. A hike without a little bushwhack is like... well, a hike. I just can't stand the thought of ending good fun and just walking straight back to the car!

Thanks for sharing a good adventure and for the write-up,


   Home - Travel - Climbs - Cats - Friends - Links - Resume   
   Text and photographs are copyright 1994-2003 Evan Bigall, all rights reserved.