This is a (n excessively) long article. It should really be two or three, and maybe one day it will. But probably not. Only in really important cases do I ever go back and rewrite these stories. If you are here looking for beta on climbing the West Face of Leaning Tower, it is here, but you'll have to do a bit of reading first. If you're not a climber, then hopefully the story will be interesting enough. The important things to know are that a wall is a climb that takes more than one day to finish, and Camp 4 is the center of the climbing universe, a campground in yosemite valley.
Everyone says that in Camp 4, you can meet anyone to climb anything. But they never say just how this sort of thing happens. Paul was chatting his friend Dan over one of the bear boxes one evening that he wanted to do a small wall, and had to find someone. I rudely interrupted, asking what wall, and it was on. This was a day or two after I'd made the hard decision to give up on my one goal of the entire climbing season, climbing Half Dome. I'd come to the realisation that given the amount of free climbing on it, although I'd be able to get up it, I wouldn't be able to do it in a very long day, and would realistically be aiming at three days, which simply wouldn't have been any fun. I'd retargeted at the West Face of Leaning Tower, a grade V, but rad, and overhanging the whole way, not that boring South Face of Washington Column that lots of people do as their first grade V.
We picked a date, got copies of the topos, rested, and racked. I don't actually remember actually doing any climbing together before we left either, though we did afterwards. We had mutual friends vouch in each direction, and he had his head screwed on pretty well, so I wasn't too concerned. Paul had the haul bag, and had done some walls in Zion. I'd done a lot of single pitch aid screwing around in australia, and had done a deliberate overnight on the Beerwah Bolt Route, but that was about it, and all of it was quite a while ago.
We compared the supertopo, the reid topo, and beta from the two other parties on our site that had been up in previous weeks. We also flipped for the leads on the ground, which helped with the planning. We were going to link every pitch, making a grand total of 5 pitches. Paul got pitches 1, 3 and 5, and I got 2 and 4. So I got the c2 pitches, and he got the roof. We had a few purchases to make before we left. I went and bought knee pads, which made life luxurious, and also some thin gloves I cut the fingers off. These were also luxurious, and lots cheaper than the metolius leather ones. I didn't get any nicks in my fingers at all in the entire climb, and my knees felt like normal at the end. Highly recommended accessories.
Our rack was neither big nor small...
A note on the topos. None of the ones we saw had even remotely accurate bolt counts, particularly for the rising traverse left to the slab of guano ledge. Also, we didn't need any rivet hangers, or anything of the sort. All the bolts have been replaced at some point, and are almost without fail pretty decent.
So that's the rack, the next step was to actually get on the route. This was much harder. It was prime wall season, and leaning tower is an extremely popular route. I went out the day before, in the afternoon, and counted 8 people on the wall. We went out the next morning at 5:30, hoping to get going, and found two parties on ahwahnee, one party on the first pitch, and another party at the base waiting. We decided to stash the water and the static line, and come back again the next day.
Which was no better, but we had decided we were staying this time. We didn't see so many people on the route this second morning, but we found them sitting at the bivy spot waiting their turn. A pair of norwegians heading up wet denim daydream, and a soloist, Luke from Taos. There was a double team of Swiss rushing to try and get up in a day on the first four pitches. (two of our pitches)
We sat and put our clothes back on, as it was quite cool. Luke offered to let us go first, as he knew he was going to be slow, so we started ferrying stuff out to the base after the norwegians. This is actually the worst part of the climb in my mind. The traverse along the 4th class terrace is pretty scary. It's early in the morning, it's high, and the rope trolley line, though in good condition, is only anchored infrequently, so if you do slip off, you're going quite a way before the trolley line hopefully holds you. We eventually got out to the start, and were just about to start up, when it started raining people on us. The swiss were retreating, having sat on awahnee for three hours now, waiting for the parties in front of them. They were not happy, but pragmatic about it, this was their third attempt to get up in a day, and they were now out of time and had to fly home. These guys were rather confident, zipping down out of the sky on their 8mm rap line, and then stopping right at the end and pulling back into the anchors.
So it was 11:30am by the time Paul took off, clip clip clipping his way up the bolt ladder. Took him an hour and a half for the first double pitch, almost exclusively bolts, but a few bits of thin gear, and some fixed pieces. I lowered out the haul bag, something I'd never really done before. Paul hadn't either, all his Zion stuff had been one day, and when Bob and I had climbed Beerwah, we'd just muscled Bob's backpack which was our haul bag. This time we had a proper haul bag, a minitraxion, and about 15feet of 5mm cord on the haulbag, which we'd lower out with a munter off the anchor, just belaying it out till we ran out of cord then letting it go.
Jugging this long pitch nearly broke me. It had been quite a while, and I really, really, didn't have my system down. the steepness, and the backcleaning made it fairly hard going, and by the time I got to Paul, I was actually talking about retreat. Paul said he'd be happy to lead the rest, but I told him that didn't help, I was either going to do it, or I wasn't, but after a bit of a spell and a drink, I took the rack and headed off.
Straight onto "two lobes on a three cam unit means C2 right?" Plenty bomber really. I used lots of nuts on this pitch, (and my next one) along with more than a few hooks. It was just faster in some places than fiddling with silly gear. I even did hook to hook once. I didn't really consider the aiding to be all that hard, though I was slow as molasses, taking two hours for this double pitch. It was a piece of cake actually, compared to the jugging on the first pitch. The quirkiest parts here were the fiddling and odd angles getting onto the ledge where pitch3 traditionally stops, and then the slab onto guano ledge. For that, I clipped my etriers to the last bolt, and climbed right up them, and then onto the bolt, leaving them behind while I trembled up to the trolley line running from the bolts on guano ledge across to awahnee ledge. Apparently it's not uncommon for people to take a bight of rope, and with a bit of weight from a set of nuts for instance, lassoo the trolley line and pull up onto it that way.
Paul made it up to guano just as the sun was setting. I was pretty beat, (it may have been straightforward, but it was still exhausting) so we just sat down, fiddled with how to get enough space for bags, people and sleeping mats, and then got some food out. We were sharing the ledge with the two Norwegians, who had already fixed ropes on the next pitch of wet denim daydream, so it was fairly cosy. I'm not yet hardened enough to eat cold ravioli, so we'd even brought a stove, giving me a hot meal, and both of us hot drinks. Went to sleep, in our twister like positions, and got up bright and early the next morning.
Sleeping was actually fairly easy. You just lie down and fall asleep. One of the norwegians, who had the slot closet to the edge, actually read for a while, with his book hanging out of space, casually flipping pages of it while he lay a couple of inches from the edge. You can see the size of the ledge we had for the four of us in one of the pictures. And the ahwanee is considered a spacious ledge. You also stay tied in the entire note, though I loosened the leg loops on my harness.
Surpisingly it was actually quite warm on the ledge. Apparently the hot air comes out of the valley or something, which I wouldn't have thought would have worked with size of the valley, but for whatever reason, it was much warmer all night, and again in the morning than it had been any night recently down in the valley floor.
It needs to be mentioned here that we'd fixed our rope from Guano ledge down, leaving it there for Luke to jug up. He had let us pass, and as daylight quickly retreated, he decided that he'd rather succeed than lead every pitch, and could we please leave a rope for him. It was the least we could do, basically we would have been waiting another day without his sacrifice.
But it was now morning, and he hadn't come up with his own rope yet. Fortunately, just as we were dicking around getting things sorted, he came jugging up with his own second rope to replace it. Paul took off across the traverse right, starting straight away with the pendulum, which is not that far at all in the end, but you can't really see where you're going. He placed our three smallest pieces in a row, the 0 tcu, and two blue aliens, before getting back onto fixed gear, and cruising up the traverse to the end of traditional pitch 5.
About this time, Luke arrived for the second time at guano ledge where I was belaying. This time, he was ready to start hauling and chase me up. Twas not to be though. He'd hung his haulbag from a hook through a bolt, and it turned out it had hooked itself well and good, and he couldn't haul it up, requiring a third trip down and up our linked pitch 2. Luke was not impressed with this turn of events, things had not been going well for him. I tried my best to go through plans with him, and when we left, he was going to relax on Awahnee Ledge, and recover for the afternoon, avoiding the heat, and we were going to fix his rope over pitch 5/6, for him to jug the next morning. We never saw him again, he was meant to come by camp, and I even went down to give him and his gear a lift back to camp, as he didn't have a car, but I never found him. Hopefully he made it successfully, and not to thirstily.
Paul had a couple of problems with the free/camhooking/odd stuff off the pitch 5 belay, before the rest of pitch 6 traverses back left again and onto a bolt ladder. So now it was my turn, to put the reading into practise, and actually clean a proper traverse. Reading paid off however, and I managed to rig the lower out for the first pendulum successfully, saving me a jump into space onto the rope. (Which I've heard of people doing)
Cleaning traverses turned out to be my specialty. I was the lower out master. Due to the amount of backcleaning both Paul and I were doing to link every single pitch, I ended up doing a lot of lower outs, as the next piece was simply too high and too far to one side to be any use. Lots of lower outs also means lots of big big swings as the lower out loop comes free. Lots of fun, and lots of whooping from myself and cheering from Luke down below. Paul took two hours for this double pitch.
And it was back to me again. I started off fast, but slowed down again. Fixed lots of nuts on this pitch. Just too stuck in the free mode, where you can get away with dropping nuts into big deep slots. Once you've stood on them of course, this means they are never coming out. I left behind 4 nuts in the end, contributing to making Leaning Tower a boring clip up. The bolt ladders are one thing, but the fixed sections were just brain neutral. You just stood on anything to reach up and clip more fixed gear. So sorry about that :)
This pitch was meant to be easier than my first one, but I found equally quirky bits, and it took me just as long. Got to use my cam hooks though, which was great, I'd been carrying them around for long enough. And I have to say, those things rock! Sooo bomber. It felt so much more solid than the tiny little offset I was trying to get in. I ended up at a belay just under the big roof, fairly late in the afternoon. Paul flew up, and quickly headed off up the roof pitch. Piss bottle still fully loaded and hanging off his harness. Go Paul!
The sun was really starting to go down now, and the colour on the walls as Paul went over the roof was something else. Then it was just a case of hanging out at my hanging belay, and watching the giant shadows of paul from his headlight coming down over the lip of the roof, and wait. This was a continual routine of going from standing in my etriers to sitting in my harness. Not the most pleasant. A belay seat would have been cool.
Paul finally finished, a magnificent effort almost entirely in the dark for the second half, and I lowered out the haul bag. It disappeared from the beam of my headlight! That's how big the roof was, and how much the route still overhung. Quite eery watching the bag dissappear, then reappear. Paul had aggressively backcleaned under the roof, whcih again gave me some big swings. I was a pro at this by now though. I tried to muscle some of them, just pulling really hard in on a piece and trying to unclip in the small window of zero momentum at the peak of my swing, but after the first one or two I realised I was simply way to tired for that. Did some wild lower outs and swings in the dark, spinning around on the end of my rope, headlight beam going everywhere in the dark. More cheers from Luke below, watching my light go all over the place.
The odd thing here is that I was tired. Too tired to muscle things, but not really feeling all that tired, just didn't have the burst strength left. By the time I got to the top even, Paul could barely move, but I was really feeling quite spry. I felt great really, even though I had no real useful strength left. Oh well.
What really helped here, was all the loops of tape that had been looped through all the fixed pins through this section. Paul had rarely clipped these as his gear, but they worked wonders for me to lower out from. I would pull into and thread a lower piece, and unclip the cam above, then lower out and let go. I couldn't tell you many details of the route here, as I just followed the dotted line of rope and gear, until I got to the traverse left at the very top. I ended up re-aiding this, and then it was over!
We had a bit of water left, and found some water on top, and we had plenty of food, so we decided to spend the night on the absolutely enormous summit ledge, (which is really really big, but actually slopes quite a bit) We gorged out on food, guzzled water, and went to sleep again. We even got to take our harnesses off for a bit here. Very cush. Very pleasant getting up in the morning and not having anything left to do but gorge more water, and wander on down.
The descent was uneventful. I picked up someone's pipe bomb from the summit, and two more piss bottles on the way down, which we emptied and cleaned up. Someone's got to do it! shame on you for leaving full piss bottles on the descent. We did three raps into the notch, by following obvious stations, but two double rope raps would get you straight into the notch. You could downclimb a lot of this if you were feeling spry. Paul carried the pig almost the entire way down, and I went up down and around finding and rigging all our ropes.
There's lot and lots of stations in the gully. If there were parties above or below us, we might have used more of them, but we bypassed a couple, and could have bypassed more. However, it's a bit weird and I don't recommend doing it. The last rap was the hardest to find. I'd come down to a ledge, but I couldn't see anything over the ledge, so I scrambled down a grotty chute to a grotty tree with grotty slings around it. And looked back under where I'd come and spotted the station I'd been looking for.
Which is not the nicest station, with a single bolt, a shurb, and a notch of rock, all slung together with a catalog of different sorts of tapes and cords. I rapped down from here on a single rope, as we'd done on all raps after the first, and promptly got to a hanging belay in the middle of the vast expanse of rock, and realised that I should have done a double rope rap, which would have gotten us to the ground. Oh well. I had that rope in my backpack fortunately, so I let Paul stay on the big ledge above, and rerigged the second rope so he wouldn't have to do the hanging belay with the pig. And then we were down, then we walked down, picking up even more garbage.
We got a tourist to take our picture at the carpark. I'd framed and lined up the shot, which included bridal veil falls, and our heads, and was oriented vertically. He promptly took my camera, turned it sideways, and took a picture of us, with a pile of dirt in the carpark for some repairs. Nice one. We politely got him to take the pictures we really wanted.
Then it was just off to Curry for pizza and beer, and being obnoxious. And rest days. (Congratulations for reading this far)
Rack for West Face of Leaning Tower, after we started packing it unfortunately
The sketchy 4th class. Worst section is near the skyline
It overhangs a lot
Fortunately we don't climb all this
Luke, patiently playing the waiting game
Up, up and away. Looking up at P1
I hope that line's secure
Paul (and me)