DISCLAIMER: I am brand new to wall climbing and am probably the last person you'd wanna depend on for any kind of logistical beta or aid soloing advice. This was my first aid solo attempt and I pretty much learned how to do it from the Internet, as odd as it sounds. I'm pretty sure I did everything the slowest way possible, but since I did get about 800 feet up the route before turning back due to snow/weather/time crunch and successfully rapped the route without dying, I thought maybe I would write up a TR and post it in case any of this stuff might be helpful (since I can comment a little on the most recent conditions of the route, the fixed gear situation, etc) or at the very least to provide entertainment for the masses... right now I'm sitting in my warm, cozy bedroom the day after all this went down (typing with swollen, bloody hands) and everything is still fresh in my mind. I also took a paper and pen up there with me and spent some time each night writing, which was a great way to end each day.. But yeah - I am in no way qualified to give any kind of advice - everything you read in here is simply an account of my experience and don't rely on what I say or else yerrrrr gonna die!!! for real. I remember as a new climber, reading trip reports that were so full of climbing lingo that I didn't even understand anything I was reading, so I tried to be a little more descriptive so the average person out there will still mostly be able to follow what I'm describing - but sorry if it's a little long-winded as a result. Forgive the typos, I did not have time to re-read everything I wrote by the time I finished this.. Also go nuts and criticize me as much as you want.. it's what you get when you post the details of your "learning experiences" online! HAHA - And with that, I hope you enjoy my first trip report! (I created a Supertopo profile just to post this).
Beautiful picture of the LEANING TOWER: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2339/2394429834_2299264f56_z.jpg?zz=1 (not my photo). Bridalveil Falls (617 feet) is to the left of the Tower.
BACKGROUND: Last May on a rainy day in the Valley, my friend's dad (a veteran oldschool wall climber who was out visiting from the east coast) convinced me to try "aid climbing" up the Le Conte boulder since it was wet everywhere else. The Le Conte Boulder is a reachy, overhanging series of bolts drilled into a rock that has spanked hundreds of new aspiring aid climbers. I did not know this, nor had I ever touched a set of aiders and knew nothing about even the basic aid sequence. For those of you who don't know - aid climbing involves using a pair of these sorta 'rope ladder' things (called "aiders") that you clip into protection in the wall (either pre-drilled bolts, or gear that you place yourself into cracks and other features in the rock) and then climbing up the steps of your aiders before clipping the second aider into the next piece of gear. On steep terrain it can be very difficult, and is especially hilarious to watch someone trying to pick it up for the first time ever. When I did it, it was a complete circus and my friends at the base of the boulder were literally crying with laughter from watching me thrutch and squirm my way up it. My friend said he's never seen his dad laugh so hard in his life. WOW. Well, a day or two later, curiosity got the best of me and I decided to try aiding a 5.10a crack called ChurchBowl Tree. I comparatively FLEW up it due to the low angle and fact that I could place gear anywhere I wanted. The experience was completely opposite from aiding the steep stuff and I was surprised how much I liked it. Although I spent the rest of my summer free climbing up in Washington/Squamish/Bugaboos and did not aid climb again for the rest of the summer, a seed was planted that day, and in the back of my mind I wondered if I would ever give aid climbing a more serious try.
"WALL" EXPERIENCE PRIOR TO THIS WEEKEND: Fast forward to October - I was back from my summer, in my last year of law school and pretty much just killing time during the weekdays, waiting for the weekends to roll around. I pretty much spent my all time in class just reading climbing forums online - especially the big wall forums. I thought some of the stuff I read about was so complicated (yet creative) that I found myself researching more and more just to try to understand what some of these people were talking about in the forums - ("lower-outs," "chongo ratchets," "far end hauling" - all these terms that made understanding the trip reports impossible)... Eventually I became interested in learning some of these techniques and found myself practicing new knots and setting up pulley systems and stuff like that in my room on school nights. (NERD) My friend Alix has always been psyched on EVERYTHING related to climbing and so between her psyche and my curiosity, somehow the idea to "do a wall" was born and one day in October (?) we got on the South Face of Washington Column with another friend. I'll have to skip all the details or else I'd be writing like FOUR trip reports but basically, up until this weekend I have only practiced messing around on a few "walls" - some pitches on the South Face of Washington Column, some pitches on Skull Queen (also on Washington Column), and most recently about the first 12 pitches of Lurking Fear on El Cap... When my Thursday classes cancelled last week (I have no school on Fridays!) and nobody I knew had any solid plans to get out to the Valley, BAM ! I decided it would be a perfect weekend to see what soloing a wall was all about.
DRIVING TO THE VALLEY: I left Davis on Wednesday at 9pm but had to grab a second rope from my cousin's house up in Grass Valley. My old 60 meter rope (the first one I ever owned) had recently been destroyed at one end from hauling withOUT a swivel up the slabby first 3 pitches of Washington Column - and further damaged on the other end when a section of the rope got core shot from jugging (i.e. ascending a rope with jumars/ascenders) up to the anchors above the Kor Roof when we got on Skull Queen...it's now like 39 meters long and sitting in my closet to maaaaybe be used one day as a gym rope, but probably not - so my only option was to grab an old 70m rope that I got while I was living/climbing in China in 2009 and use that. After using this particular rope extensively for several years, I finally gave it away. It was an old rope but still in alright shape, just felt a little soft. By the time I got to the Valley it was 2:30am. I passed out at Harding Flat road right on the ice/concrete. It was super cold.
The next morning I wokeup at like 8ish and drove to the Mountain Shop and then to Camp 4 to see my buddy Jim who was literally the only person in Camp 4. I asked him a few last minute questions just to confirm some of the stuff I've read - like "how do you setup the grigri to rope solo" and also to ask about some of the stuff I did not know - like "how do you pass a knot while hauling" (HAaha - he was like "I dunno, just figure it out man!") He gave me a cloth shopping bag and told me to use this as a rope bag to stay organized (awesome idea) and then we parted ways. I told him my tentative schedule and that if I wasn't back by Sunday then something unexpected must have happened to me. I drove to Bridal Veil Falls and laid out all my stuff on the dry pavement near the bathrooms and started packing the bags.
WHAT I BROUGHT: Dang it! Not everything I wanted to bring up there was going to fit into my Metolius Quarter Dome haul bag so I had to downsize. I couldn't downsize on ropes, climbing rack, water, or sleeping bags so I had to get rid of the bulkiest non-essential items (which was mostly backup clothing I REALLY wish I would have brought). I do not own a bivysack so I brought one synthetic bag AND one down bag, figuring I could keep my down bag dry by using the synthetic bag like a bivy sack? Hmm.. in reality it didn't work so well but by the time I decided to get on the Tower (like on Tuesday of that week) I didn't have time to research bivy sacks and drop a hundred bucks (or more) for one. I made up for it by buying a tarp at the Mountain Store.
WHAT I BROUGHT WITH ME:
*Ropes: two 70 meter (old) dynamic ropes
*Draws: 7 single length alpine draws, 2 double length alpine draws, 6 sport draws
*Cams: singles of: #2, 3, and 3.5 camalot, a single set of C3s; doubles from blue .3 to red #1 camalot
*Stoppers: 1 set offset brass nuts; 1 incomplete set dmm alloy offsets; 1 incomplete set BD stoppers, nut tool
*Hooks: talon hook, cliffhanger hook, grappling hook, bird beak?tomahawk thing, rivet hangers,
*Other gear: Black diamond alpine aiders, petzl ascension ascenders, 1 adjustable daisy, 1 normal daisy + fifi hook, all the extra locking binerds and random slings I could find (not a lot); 2 cordalettes for anchors, BD Big Gun harness
-2 sleeping bags (Marmot Pinnacle 15 degree down bag + mountainhardware ultralamina 0 degree synthetic bag)
-1 huge tarp
-Clothes: jeans, socks, boots, gaiters, helmet, beanie, skimask, gloves, long johns, patagonia primaloft puffy (not warm enough!), and a backup superlight emergency rainjacket
-Food + 7 liters of water
-Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, chapstick, handwarmers,
-Ipod, mini speakers, heaphdphones, small point and shoot nikon camera
-No drugs, no alcohol, no candy :(
I think my bag weighed like 80 or 90 pounds or something. I could barely pick it up off the ground and get it onto my shoulders. Definitely the heaviest bag I've ever carried, but I only wanted to do the approach once so I took it all in one load. It was 11am by the time I was fully packed and finished writing the rangers a polite note asking them not to tow my car for leaving it at the "NO OVERNIGHT PARKING" Bridal Veil falls lot for three days. A few cold tourists with super expensive cameras walked by me and looked at me like I was crazy and took photos of me but didn't say anything (typical)
THE APPROACH: Going up to the base of the Leaning Tower took forever! The boulderfield was especially treacherous. It had just snowed a day or two before and so the boulders were steep and slippery and I had to use all fours to crawl my way up it. The bag was squeaking and sliding all over my back. Everything was covered in two inches of snow/ice and my gloves were at the bottom of my haul bag so my hands were literally freezing about five miutes into it. Luckily I brought my waterproof boots and snow gaiters because after I made it passed the boulder field I was kicking steps in the snow all the way up the side of the mountain and up toward the base. It took me at least two hours.
GETTING TO THE "BASE": I will refer to the actual first bolted station 430 feet off the ground as the "base" and the spot below that as the "base-of-the-base" (?) for lack of better terms. So at the base-of-the-base there is a large flat spot that looks like it could comfortably sleep 4 people, and a nice flat rock that looks like a small table - this is not the bivy as shown in the Supertopo, but instead it is the bottom of the "430 feet to ground" part on the topo. IF you decide to haul your bag(s) to the actual start of the route (which I recommend if you don't have a partner to split up the weight and/or do not want to unpack and repack everything again up at the base) then this is where you'd set them down. I'm pretty sure you need two 70s to haul from here unless you have extra smaller lines and can get creative somehow.
Given the extreme weight of my bags, the fact that I was by myself, and having read about the treacherous 3rd/4th class scramble to get to the base (which sometimes has a fixed line and other times does not) I decided to carry my two ropes up along the ledge system to the base and fix the two lines together so I could haul my bag from the base-of-the-base up to the base. I figured if it turned out that the ledges were easy, and the fixed lines were up, I could always just walk back down and carry my bags up instead of hauling. It turned out to be a good idea to haul because the ledge system is quite precarious and I don't know how I would have done it by myself with my bags. As you will see at the end (if you actually get through reading this entire TR), this gave me some serious trouble on the way down and in hindsight I think (for people who end up rapping/bailing, that is) it may be best to not only haul the bags to the base one the first day, but perhaps also find a way to lower them from the anchors at the base down to the base-of-the-base. If you don't, you'd better be strong cause the ledge(s) are definitely not wide enough to rest a haul bag and you'd have to carry it AND make exposed 4th/easy 5th class moves hundreds of feet above a straight drop to the ground at the same time.
HAULING TO THE BASE: Once at the base, I tied two 70m ropes together and threw them down. If you do this, make sure you LOOK down at the massive flake system below and throw the ropes toward the downhill side of the ground (climbers left) - seems like common sense but I mention it cause according to some people, I lack that sometimes - I just tossed the ropes without looking too hard and they ended up getting stuck all over the place and I had to rap down partway and do some major king swing action to get them oriented straight down and on the other side of the flakes...ropes were sawing against sharp edges and I was climbing around in icy chimneys in my boots and it was not cool. After getting the ropes oriented straight against the smooth slab, I had to pass a knot while on a rappel - which, believe it or not, I have never done before. A grigri and adjustable daisy + ascender made it pretty straightforward but I had never thought much about it before so I had to stop and look at it for a second and figure it out. Once I was down on the ground, I tried to get as much snow off my rope as possible and then secured my haul bag to the end of the rope and position it as far downhill as I could to avoid the small roof system that is about 20-30 feet up the wall because I did not want the bags to get stuck under a tiny roof and have to lower them and mess with that. Once the bags were in position I hiked back uphill and back across the exposed ledge system and began hauling my bag up to the bolts at the real base of the route. Hauling went great until it came time to pass the knot which connected my two ropes together through the hauling device (Petzl Microtraxion).
(WOW, if there is a super easy awesome fast way to do this without manhandling everything, somebody please email me with a good description (firstname.lastname@example.org) - seriously - because I had a crazy hard time figuring it out) - In the end I ended up slapping a downward facing BLACK jumar (which was clipped to a bolt via a two foot sling) to the haul-end of the rope, pulled the slack-end of the rope slightly with my other WHITE hauling jumar (which was clipped to my belay loop so i could use my body weight to haul) just enough to disengage the cam on the hauling device and lower the weight of the bags onto the downward facing BLACK jumar so I could then remove the hauling device completely. I then clipped my daisy chain to the BLACK jumar and ran it up toward the anchor, then down through a carabiner (which was clipped to a bolt as a directional) so that when I lowered my weight onto my daisy chain, in theory it would pull the black jumar/weighted rope/haul bag up enough for me to have the slack I needed to re-attach the hauling device on the other side of the knot and continue hauling. The problem was all with the lengths of these various slings and stuff - next time I will practice beforehand so I know exactly what lengths I need everything to be because the problem was that once I re-attached the hauling device to the other side of the knot, I couldn't clip the device up high enough to where it was before I unclipped it - mostly because of the amount of slack I had to work with (not enough slack or something?) so I had to extend the hauling device quite a bit lower in order to keep hauling. I had the knot passed successfully but once I started hauling again I realized it was inefficient so I just manhandled it and made some adjustments and somehow got it clipped in a little bit higher so I could actually haul somewhat efficiently - but yeah someone send me a link to a vid or a good description cause that was a mini-epic all by itself.. probably took me like 25 minutes HHAHAHAH. I can visualize someone with their system dialed doing it in like.. two mins.
THE CLIMB: For those of you (like my little sister) who may be reading this who aren't that familiar with solo climbing, it takes a LONG time to make it up just one pitch - you essentially have to climb up the pitch while dragging a second rope behind you, rappel from the top of that pitch back down to where you started (where you bags are waiting), release the haul bags from the anchor, take apart your anchor (cause it's YOUR gear and you need it to build more anchors above you), then ascend UP the rope you first used to get to the top, which is clipped through all your gear that you used to protect yourself on the way up, remove your gear as you ascend the rope, then once you get to the top of that pitch (the second time), you setup your hauling device and start hauling your bags up to the anchor, where you then secure them and let them hang while you start climbing the next pitch. It takes forever if you are doing it for the first time, especially if you have to think about everything for a minute or two before making your next move.
It was definitely afternoonish by the time I got my bags up to the base. I wanted to climb up as many pitches as I could and fix my ropes to the anchors above me so I would have a 'head start' that next morning, so I took off up the first pitch and started going for it! I had never aid solo'd before and have only top rope solo'd once so it was a weird/unfamiliar/scary feeling to take off by myself with all these ropes hanging off me, trying to keep track of the 'important one' and make sure I had enough slack but not too much and to just ...TRUST that if I fell somehow this system was going to keep me from hitting the ground. The first pitch was steep!
I have only cleaned ONE steep pitch and that was the Kor Roof and I had no idea how to do it, so I really didn't understand the concept of how to make cleaning a pitch easy for the follower - (which in this case was me!) ...but I was about to find out. For some reason I backcleaned a LOT of the draws and probably only left like three of them on that route. I'm still not sure if that made it easier to clean (on one hand there were less draws to clean and less stopping = less work, right?) but on the other hand, backcleaning in steep terrain made it harder to jug up and clean the draws on my way up, so I'm not sure which would have been better - but either way it was fine and I made it to the first anchor but realized I didn't have my headlamp to link the next pitch and the sun was starting to go down.
It was getting dark quick quickly and once the sun left I was pretty cold even though I had been moving up steep terrain (stopping for just a little bit made me freezing cold).. so I rappelled down (I had fixed the ends of my rope to the anchor at the base so when I rapelled down and was level with the base of the first pitch (and like 40 feet out in space) I could pull myself in).
SLEEPING ON THE LEDGE: I got back to the ledge and got unpacked and settled in for the night. The ledge there is narrow, with room for only 1 person (you could cram 2 people there for survival purposes but it wouldn't be comfy and you'd never do it cause you can just walk down in like 6 minutes from that point). It was the first time sleeping with a harness on and I was quite comfy in it! I was connected to the fixed line in case I slept-rolled-off-a-cliff in my sleep. It was probably a good thing cause that night I had a dream I was being chased by a bear. I wokeup at 2am with extreme moonlight shining in my face and couldn't fall back asleep for a while. It was insanely cold outside of my bags but with two sleeping bags I was relatively warm.
DAY 2: I wokeup with ice in the water bottles I had left outside and with frost all over my synthetic (outer) sleeping bag. This slowly turned to water and by the time I was done eating breakfast my bag was pretty soaked. I packed my dry (down) bag at the bottom of my haul bag and kept the wet bag separate and just let it hang from the bottom of my bag. My hands felt destroyed! I have no idea why (maybe from pulling on so many carabiners/slings/aid ladder loops/etc) - but I was shocked at how swollen and hurt they felt. I jugged up the lines I left from the day before, cleaned the first pitch, got to the anchor, then led the second pitch.
FIRST DAISY FALL / RIPPING A FLAKE OUT: At the top of pitch 2 I had to bust a free move to get up onto the ledge - which felt very uninviting after I had been standing in my aiders the whole time. To step out of them and climb with all the clutter of ropes, rack, BOOTS, etc - and all the stuff that was clipped to me - it just didn't feel right! At first I tried setting a small hook behind a flake and clipping my aiders to it so I could walk up my aider and onto the ledge instead of free climbing up to it - but when I weighted it (and before I unclipped from the piece below me) the flake exploded and I fell onto my daisy chain. Luckily it was to the side so I didn't fall straight down but instead, kinda did this harsh sideways swing. But that was scary and sucked!
And I got tons of dirt/dust in my eyes and teeth and it actually took a long time of blinking and spitting before I could see clearly again. I finally just threw out a loop of slack from my grigri - tied it off as a backup (because I didn't want to test it to see if it would catch a fall), and then got savage and screamed and pulled myself up to the top of the pitch with all my gear and ropes and stuff dangling from me and choking my neck and threatening to pull me off. I stood up and clipped in. WHEW... It was cool to haul from the second pitch because once the line came tight on my bags, they swung out like 60 feet away from the wall into space. They looked tiny from where I was! Hauling was sooo easy with no slabs for the bags to rub against or roof/rock features to get stuck under, I wish all hauling could be on overhanging terrain...
PITCH 3: Pitch 3 turned out to be the business of the route for me. I'm not sure why but it was super scary the entire time. Just about a week before, I had taken some falls while aid climbing (two factor2 falls onto the anchor and one fall onto my daisy chain) when pieces of gear (Black Diamond C3s) ripped out of the wall after I placed them in flaring pinscars and weighted them without bounce testing - so having that feeling fresh in my mind and along with the sound of a loud POP out of nowhere followed by falling sideways off El Cap still standing in my aiders made me feel super cautious and paranoid the whole time. I was taking my time and bounce testing everything like crazy. Not to mention, a bunch of times when I would pull the rope below me to see how much slack there was between my anchor and my grigri, I was horrified to find that a the rope had been backfeeding the whole time and I was actually climbing above like a thirty foot loop of slack - meaning I would take a massive 70-foot fall or something EVEN if NONE of my pieces ripped - and I was clipping into manky fixed copperheads and placing horrible pieces of gear like tiny brass nuts in weird constrictions at the edge of large pinscars where I wish I had either HUGE or TINY offset cams (all I had for offsets was 1 blue/yellow and 1 yellow/orange) and it made the climbing feel significantly harder than anything I've ever aided before. The blue yellow cam was absolutely essential, as were the alloy offsets and also the beak/tomahawk thing. The yellow/orange offset I only placed once but was glad I had it cause nothing else was going in.
RIPPING ANOTHER PIECE: At one point on pitch 3 I had NO clue what to do - everything was just blank and all the copperheads had busted wires so I tried placing a "beak" or tomahwak or something (no idea what it's called) in a seam but that thing ripped when I weighted it - luckily I was still tight into the piece below me on a fifi hook so I only fell like 1 foot, but my hands were right up against the wall behind the beak when it ripped and I had no gloves on! So it ripped some skin off my knuckles and eventually ended up leaving blood on the wall as I fumbled pieces into the seam for the rest of the pitch above that.
Busting the 'free move' to get to the little pillar at the top of pitch 3 was super awkward and my grigri kept short-roping me and it took me forever just to make that last final move.. MAN this was turning out to be such a challenege!
PITCH 4: The 4th pitch leading up to the Awhanee ledge was also not exactly straight forward - I still thought pitch 3 was scarier but this one was also pretty gripping (to me - it was probably piece of CAKE to anyone else - but even though the topo calls it C1 it felt harder than the C2 pitch I led on Skull Queen.. which made me wonder WHAT on earth the C2 on the upper pitches would be like.. It started with clipping a FIXED beak like four feet to the right of the anchor and kind of above a buldge (so not a clean fall) followed by placing my beak thing (this time it didn't rip!) and stepping high to get small gear into little tiny spaces that I couldn't even see until I stuck my face right up close to them (wishing I had offsets the whole time!!) until I could get one solid stopper like 20 feet up before it went to some upside down flaring pinscar placements under tiny roof/buldges which I miraculously got by using normal cams, followed by some some pretty chill hook moves (but like 2 hook moves in a row so I was scared - or free climbing if I didn't wanna use hooks - which wasn't happening because I was having grigri shortroping issues that whole pitch and I felt too bulky to clip both aiders to my harness and just start free climbing) to (FINALLY!) - a nice bolt ladder that led to a slab move up to the ledge. Sounds exhausting just to read about.
Getting onto the ledge was crazy because I had backcleaned like 3 of the draws below me so that there wouldn't be any rope drag (because the last few bolts go way sideways to the left before a 5.4 slab takes you back to the right and up to the anchors). As I pulled out my last draw and committed to the slab moves, I was just about to get my weight over the lip and onto the slab to stand up when I was horrified to find thath my grigri was pulling me tight so that I could not rock my weight forward over my feet - so I was stuck in a mid-mantel position and unable to move forward even one inch! I couldnt release my hands to deal with it so I tried to thrust my hips forward to force some slack out just so I could move forward a few inches but the grigri was locked up and wouldn't budge. I wasn't stable yet and was getting pumped just holding this position and was looking at a waaaay bad sideways fall (dangit why did I back clean all those draws!) Miraculously I was able to twist my body so that one end of the rope ran across my hand that was holding the rock and I was able to use two fingers to slowly push rope up through the grigri to create enough slack that I could rock forward just barely enough to a hands-free spot and deal with the grirgi. I now have hatred for grigris (at least for self-belaying free climbing moves).
OOPS: One other thing I forgot to mention - I had intended to link pitches 3 and 4 but did not think I had enough draws for the bolt ladder on pitch 4, so I lowered down pitch 3 to clean some gear - then jugged back up to start pitch 4 - but my rope bag that was keeping my ropes in nice neat coils had ripped by the second pitch and somehow when I went to start pitch 4, the rope was stuck near/under/behind the haul bag - but I couldn't see it from where I was or fix it, so I had to rap all the way back down, unstick the rope - and then jug up. While I was down there unsticking the rope, I decided I would rather just release the bags from here and just haul from the top so I didn't have to rap down a THIRD time - but it wasn't until I lowered out the bags that I realized just how much of the 70 rope was left (I did not tie in the bags short or pull up the slack when I clipped the haul line to the anchor above me, so when I lowered the bags they went ALL. THE. WAY. DOWN. - to the very end of the rope length (duh..) so when I jugged back up to pitch 3 and started hauling (before I started leading pitch 4) I had to haul for what seemed like an eternity! Definitely a lot of wasted a lot of time but a way good lesson to learn - PLANNING! Plan before you go... take an extra minute or two or five or ten and THINK before you act cause it WILL save time.
LOWERING OUT THE BAGS THE WRONG WAY: So yeah when I got to the ledge I was so psyched! I was actually ready for bed and it was now nearly dark but I still had to rap down to the top of pitch 3, lower out the bags, then jug back up and clean the pitch but I was soooo stoked to be done with the 'hard' aid (hard for ME) that I was in a way cheery mood. Earlier in the day when I was sitting on my fifi hook with bloody hands squinting up at a blank seam trying to figure out what to try next and had no clue if I was even going to make it through those aid sections without getting hurt - but I did! And now I was feeling high. Literally and figuratively.. So I got my headlamp, rapped down and got to work. The topo says to haul from the anchors on the left side of the ledge, not the anchors where you top out - which means when you lower the bags off the anchor at the third pitch, the bags are going to take a big swing - unfortunately I did not know anticipate how far to the left the hauling anchor was or else I would have tied in the bags short and used the slack to lower the bags out slowly, but instead I had pulled the haul line tight and so all I had to lower out the bags were my docking cords and like 15 feet of 5 mil. rope I brought as a backup in case i needed it to lower out from a fixed piece that had no tat (thanks to Mark Hudon's clever trick post I read about in the forums!) This turned out to be a larger swing than I thought and I wasn't stoked to see/hear the rope scraping over the ledge in the dark as the bags swung over to my left and into the darkness.
AHWAHNEE LEDGE: I got to the top of the ledge, unpacked, setup my camp and started eating because I was starving! WHAT A DAY! I was absolutely worked and I had only led 3 pitches. I looked at my food and laughed out loud because I realized I could easily eat ALL of it in one sitting. Or at least it felt like I was hungry enough that I could. After dinner I busted out some music, tidied up my ledge, moved some rocks around, did some writing, thought about the day and then started trying to make a plan for the rest of the route. I saw in the forecast before I left that there was a 50% chance of snow the next day, which in my experience doesn't mean a "chance" - it means "snow". Dang it... somehow I just kind of ignored this detail when I was on the ground, I guess I figured "ah it won't be that bad" (?) or something. Now I was really hoping the forecast was wrong. But I packed everything that I wanted to be dry just in case it started snowing in the middle of the night and I was too tired/cold/lazy to frantically get everything packed away. Music was amazing to have. So were all my warm clothes. And the clothes sitting in my car that I wish I had brought. It was freeeeeeezing cold yo! The moon was out and I felt like I was on another planet even though I could see little tiny headlights from cars through the trees out in the valley below. I almost wished someone was there with me, but then I remembered that being isolated was part of the experience and I soaked in the pure, solemn loneliness of the experience until I was thriving off it. The ledge was large enough that I didn't need to wear my harness! Oh man, it felt SOOO good to take it off !
THOUGHTS ABOUT WHAT TO DO NEXT: Originally (before I knew how time consuming all of this would be for my first time) my plan was to hike in on Thursday and fix at least the first two pitches, sleep on the ledge at the base Thursday night, spend Friday getting up to Ahwanee ledge, and hopefully fix pitches five and six above the ledge that evening, so I would be ready to spend Saturday either topping out or making it to the massive ledge on pitch 10, then that would leave a full day for me to get down safely and drive home on Sunday so I could be ready to go to work on Monday. I work for the Public Defender in the Sacramento County Superior Court and you can't just NOT show up to court... (other people go to jail for missing court! haha).. so I was like hmmmm...I basically need to BLITZ through these next seven pitches in ONE DAY in order to make it back in time... However - the reality of my pace was setting in - I had basically done two pitches in two days - not exactly fast - and I had SEVEN pitches left to go. Was this going to be realistic? When I went to bed that night and wokeup the next morning it would be Saturday, and I would basically have just one day to get to the top. These thoughts troubled my mind as I drifted off to sleep that night. I think the last thing on my mind were all the reasons I could possibly give for not showing up to work on Monday.... and most likely, for not showing up to school on Tuesday, either. The only thing I could think of to calm my thoughts was to set my alarm clock for 6am and tell myself I would start climbing the second it got light.. BAHAHHAHAHhhahhHAHHHAAHAHA
THE STORM: I woke up minutes before my 6 o'clcok alarm. Not sure how restful my sleep was that night. WOW my hands felt like they had been runover by a truck. I gotta figure out a way to take better care of them! I could barely make a fist.. (is that normal>?) I rolled over and looked out at the view - not a single spot of clear sky anywhere. The clouds were low and THICK, like hookah smoke.. It looked like the Internet was right - bad weather on the horizon. I knew I had to get moving fast, and hopefully I could make it up a pitch before this weather rolled in. I always thought I heard people say that the Leaning Tower would be great to do in bad weather because of how steep it was but I learned that when the storm is blowing in from the west, and you are on an exposed ledge 800 feet off the ground FACING WEST, you are going to get the full brunt of whatever bad weather comes crashing in. Sure enough, I had no sooner than pulled my gear out of the bag when all of a sudden I was IN a cloud and I could no longer see anything but the ledge I was standing on.
I kinda sat there for a few seconds before I realized it was snowing. Frantically, I started stuffing things back into my bags - my down bag was pretty dry still, so I buried that first... deep in the haul bag. I left my water and anything else that could get wet OUT of the bag and started throwing in my gear and all my other stuff. Then I realized I had no idea how long it was going to snow.
I have seen the weather forecasts change like crazy, and I have also seen it snow lightly and continuously for days and days before.... then I thought - hmmm, maybe I should take cover somehow. I figured if I could preserve the dryness of my sleeping bag, I could battle out any snow storm and at least wait until there was a break in the weather before unpacking my bags and getting in them. What I didn't want to do was get my bags soaked and then have NO backup plan for getting warm. SO I left my sleeping bags packed up and decided to just roll myself up in the tarp I had bought (so lucky I decided to stop at the MountainShop and get it!) and wait it out and see what the weather was doing.
It didn't take long before I was freaking cold. I mean like suuuper cold. Right then and there, I vowed to buy a pair of good, warm patagonia pants or something that would keep my dry in the alpine! It's one of the few pieces of gear I still don't have, and somehow in the Bugaboos I managed to get by with these super thin capri pants things and synthetic long johns.. but yeah jeans were not keeping me warm at all and I was definitely shivering after about 30 minutes or so. Not to worry! I plugged in my headphones to the soft, soothing sound of Iron & Wine - my go-to calming, relaxing music... closing my eyes and imagining I was somewhere warm - somewhere down South, during the summertime - pouring glasses of lemondade with pretty southern girls laughing and sunshine on my face... jumping off waterfalls and catching salamanders, smiling at rainbows and doing cartwheels in the grass with unicorns and hot air balloons and - wait a minute!! wtf yo - am I just going to lay here and shiver till I fall asleep or something? Okay no.. I needed to rethink my situation here. I needed to get MOVING, and laying under a tarp was not helping me get any further up the wall. Or down. So was I going to go down? It seemed too early to tell. Normally it would be a no-brainer but getting down was going to be a serious challenge because of how steep it was. Last year I met some guys in Bishop whose friend broke his leg taking a bad aid fall on the Leaning Tower and they had a hell of a time rappelling the route... that was definitely on my mind when I started thinking about my options. I busted out a handwarmer and started rubbing it all over my body.. those little things are amazing! I was thinking that I should have trailed up a whole backpack full of them under my haul bag! After about an hour or so, the snow seemed to stop for a while - my ledge was still completely covered in clouds, but it wasn't precipitating on me anymore - so I got out, stretched a little, and then started pulling some stuff out of my bag - thinking - I'll just do this next pitch and see what happens, all my stuff is still here on the ledge - worst case I can just rap back down to it.
The break lasted only about ten minutes and pretty soon it started snowing again.
DANGIT! Time to run back under the tarp and hide some more. This happened again and again several more times until it was about 11am. By now I was majorly shivering. Somehow, being wrapped up in a tarp did not keep me dry! I have no idea how it happened, but maybe it was because of the full humidity and that fact that I was breathing warm air onto a tarp inches above my face, but soon I started getting wet. First the knees of my jeans got wet, then the elbows on my jacket, then the back of my pants, and pretty soon I was feeling that wet-tyoe-of-coldness - the kind that makes you really really want to jump in a hot shower like ASAP... I started thinking about what was above me - I knew that there was about 30 feet of unprotected "5.7' climbing above me - and the thought of climbing it with no protection, no belayer in wet shoes and with wet, melting snow on the holds made me seriously wonder if I could really make the decision to go for it. Also, I did the math and realized that at this point, choosing to continue climbing to the top was definitely a choice to consciously disregard my work obligation and possibly even miss school on Tuesday (which I care 0% about, to be honest) - but work was a little more serious - and I'm not sure if it would be good karma to miss work for ...... "this" - whatever "this" experience was turning out to be. I had enough food and water and patience to still wait this out and see if the sun would ever come back, but when you are in the middle of a snowing cloud it doesn't feel like you will ever see the sun again.
I pulled out the topo and read through it under the tarp - imagining what it would be like to do some of the stuff that lay above me: a traversing pitch of "C1F" if the fixed gear was still around (or, if not, then C2), "cam hooks" - (oops, don't have any of those), "C1+F steep!" (whatever that meant - sounds hard), "awk. C2" in a 4.5 crack, (oops, the largest I brought was #3.5), "C2F" and then a giant traversing roof to and "exposed 4th class" scramble to the top. Uhhh .. HMmmmmm.. what would all of my climbing 'mentors' say if I were to ask their opinion at this point? I started thinking about all of the people I know who I look up to in climbing and I couldn't think of one person who I could honestly imagine telling me to GO FOR IT and keep pushing to the summit. I realized that at this point, forcing it to the top - IF I EVEN GOT TO THE TOP without getting hurt - would definitely be for all the wrong reasons. As I lay shivering under the tarp, I imagine just how much worse it would be feel if I were like three hundred feet higher above this ledge getting snowed on instead of hiding under a wet tarp... Or worse, how it would feel to be stuck hanging off some tiny piece of crap gear, in some crazy section of hard aid with a bunch of terrible pieces of pro below me and not have a clue how do down-aid without taking intentional whippers onto a grigri that isn't even really made for soloing.. hmmmmmm, DANGIT THOUGHTS! Why do I have to think through all these scenarios.. The truth is, it's a good thing I was forced to sit under a tarp and think very hard about my next move, because in the end, I decided it would be enough of a battle just to get myself and my haulbag down at this point, and felt that if I could make it back to the car in one piece, this whole mission would be a complete success.
When I started thinking about it like that, I got VERY psyched for the challenge of successfully getting to the ground. As soon as I committed to bailing, I felt awesome. I felt alive, in charge, and able. I threw the tarp off me and just started packing my stuff in the snow. By the time I had got everything together, it stopped snowing.
Right before I actually made my first rappel down from off the ledge, I stopped for about a minute to make sure I really wanted to bail instead of waiting it out. When I second-guessed my decision to go down, I felt all uneasy and confused again. "Alright, that's that," I said to myself "I'm not going to have this become an epic." (For those of you who think it was already too late for that.... yeah, I can see your point).
Rappelling the Leaning Tower is hard stuff! If it were just me and a rope, I feel like I could have done it without too much problem, but I had a heavy haul bag to bring down with me as well. I decided that since I was committing to the bail, I had a full day to do it in the safest and more sure way possible - which I decided would be like this: fix a single line from the anchor where my bag was (so that I could jug back up it if I got stranded out in space away from the wall) and rap down the line to anchors at the pitch below while keeping a swing going the the whole time so I wouldn't get stranded. Then, fix the line I just rapped to the anchor below me (so I wouldn't need to keep a swing when I rapped down the second time with my haul bag) and jug back up the line, cleaning any pieces I left as directionals during my first rap down. Then, once back at the top with my bag, tie both ropes together with the knot on the side I was NOT going to rap off (and also using an alpine butterfly knot to clip one side of the rope to the other side of the rope for extra peace of mind) and then rap down to the anchor below me with the haul bag. It was an awesome idea! It worked very well and I was super efficient. In fact, I thought I would have to do this four times since I was four pitches up, but I was able to keep a huge swing and skip the 3rd belay and go straight to the top of the 2nd belay before jugging up to get my bag. That saved a lot of time because jugging the overhanging terrain was super tiring. The only thing that scared me a LOT was how the rope was rubbing against the lip below the anchors on the 4th pitch as I was jugging back up it. On Skull Queen Alix arrived at the top of her fixed line to find that the slight rubbing of the rope against the rock while jugging had sawed through the sheath and exposed all the white fibers of the core - super scary! I felt like that was happening the whole time I was jugging because I was kind of bouncing up and down and I knew that the rope was just rubbing over and over in the same spot. I was actually very scared for some reason and had my eyes closed and my teeth clenched the whole time I was jugging! NOT FUN - I'm going to buy a thick rope for my next wall.
On the very last rap from the top of the second pitch to the base of the route where I slept the first night, I had to keep a GIANT swing going so I didn't get stuck - and the further I lowered the further from the anchors tyhe further away from the base of the wall I was and the harder I had to kick against the wall to build up enough momentum that I would swing back when I lowered some more - I had to actually just lock off, kick oiff the wall a few times until I was comming into the wall quite hard, and then once I was really swigning hard I could lower like ten or twenty feet more (which took away momentum from my swing to the point that my feet barely touched the wall and I had to start kicking again several times to build up enouugh of a swing to be able to lower some more - this took a while and a LOT of mental focus and physical energy and I was basically screaming and cursing at the wall the whole time like " COME ON WALL!!! DONT LEAVE ME HANGING YOU @#$%^&*^%$#% " AHhaha oh man, it's like Alix said once "good thing Tom Evans isn't watching us right now "" HAHA.. It was epic.. I was doing great until the very end, when the swing was just too far from the wall - like seriously 60 feet or something, I dunno.. HUGE. For the first time, my feet did not touch the wall on my initial swing back in, and I SLOOOOOWLY started swinging back without being able to kick off at all. Realizing that I was going to loose ALLL my hard work up to here and NOT wanting to jug all the way back up the rope only to do the whole thing over again, I quickly decided my only chance would be to use what little momentum I still had and aim for a slabby spot about twenty feet below the ledge ledge that stuck out a little and dive bomb down to it in one go. Otherwise I would be stuck like sixty feet out from where I wanted to be - and I was so exhausted I didn't think I could repeat this whole ordeal again and THEN jug back up a third time to get my bag. Amazingly, I lowered a TON of rope through the grigri super fast and basically crash landed onto the slab - which allowed me to kick off super hard once or twice and adjust my position so that I could grab a flake (kind of near one of those flakes where my ropes got stuck the morning of the first day) and then hold on and feed out enough slack to climb up to the ledge. And by crikey, IT WORKED. I climbed back up to the ledge and let out a victory yell. I fixed the line, jugged back up for the last time, praying that my rope (which was running in a weird way diagonally from the anchor at the second pitch against the rock) would not saw through and send me falling to my death. I got to the anchor, tied the two ropes together for the last time like I did above, and rapped down with the haul bag. Success! Before I went through all of this trouble, while I was still under the wet tarp visualizing how I might get down, I thought about just chucking the bag off the top, because I hear sometimes people do that in winter when nobody is around... but that seemed like bad style and I thought it would be good to learn how to safely retreat in case I ever had to do it when chucking my haul bags was not an option! However, I was officially done with the route but still 430 feet off the ground and I had to now hike off with my bags before I was actually 'on the ground'... wow this was weekend was turning out to be constant work 24/7 style.
THE DESCENT: Soooo - in a most unfortunate and ironic twist of fate, on the way back down the third/4th class ledge system, my bag ended up totally screwing me over and I ended up having to toss it 400+ feet to the snow below after all that work anyway. WHY?? Well - after coiling the ropes and repacking at the base to get ready for the hike down, I clipped myself and my haul bag (clipped us both separately, of course) to the fixed line and started humping the bag along the exposed ledges. It was freaking heavy even though I dumped out all my water and ate some more food. At one point I realized I would not be able to manhandle the bags AND safely climb down the ledge at the same time, so I decided to send my bag down the line a little ways, kinda like it was clipped into a tyrolean or a zipline. I didn't want the weight of the bags to pull me off the ledge (since I knew the bag would pull the fixed line down as far as it would stretch and I would be clipped into that line - so I clipped my second daisy into a clove hitch in the fixed line (there was barely enough slack to tie a clove hitch) so that I would not SLIDE down the line at all but would be clipped into a fixed point in the line. Once I was secure I sent the bag sliding down. It zipped down a little ways and came to rest at the lowest point where the rope would stretch... So far so good - but then, when I unclipped from the clove hitch and made my way down to move the bag, I eventually got to a spot where I encountered this tall, pointy rock feature that would require me to lift the bag above my head and push it to the otherside of the feature - all without losing my balance. I began lifting the bag with one arm and ALMOST got it over to where it needed to go, but it was so awkward and top heavy from my ropes clipped to the outside of it that I ended up losing my balance and FALLING onto the fixed line along with the bag........(it held! so far so good - everyone was still safe, except that now I was clipped to the fixed line, which had formed a giant V below the ledges, and I was dangling below all the footholds/handholds with the weight of the bag holding me down. I could not climb up the face with the weight of the haul bag holding the fixed line down, nor could I slide the bag in any direction, since gravity would just slide it back down to the low point in the line. I didn't feel very comfortable because this fixed line was tied right into the bolts and people had placed duct tape over the sharp edges of the rock in various places but there were tons of places where the line was extremely tight against all kinds of sharp edges - and I didn't wanna really hang out there too much longer or rub any part of the rope against any of those edges - so my choices were: unclip and free solo climb up to the ledge via small holds on loose rock with a 400+ foot drop below me - sit there and do nothing - or, release the bag and climb up without the weight of it pulling me back down. Easy choice. I sent the bag flying and in seconds I was back up on the ledge and cruising back down to get it. On the way down the bag hit a little ledge and did like 9x end-over-end-flips, which was pretty cool to watch but sent my ropes flying through the air and into the trees - luckily both ropes and bag made it to the ground and I didn't have to climb any trees to get any of my stuff. When the bag slammed against the snow it was much louder than I thought it would be, and I suddenly realized - dude.. I bet my nalgene exploded.. dude, I bet my camera shattered, duuuuuude!!! my cell phone is in there. my ipod, my speakers, gahh wtf why did I do that!> But by the time I got off the ledge and got back down to the bag I was soooOOOOO stoked that I just strapped my ropes to the top and started hiking down without even checking for damage. I figured it my last remaining liter of water had exploded and leaked then I'd know soon enough. The hike down was equally as steep and brutal as the way up, with snow and ice still covering the boulders - but I was able to have a better view of the terrain ahead of me and so I avoided the worst parts. There are decent carins leading down a different way than you come up - I definitely recomend that way as it's less steep and less vegetated... feels like bushwhacking. When I finally got down, I was SO STOKED that my car (which had been parked at the "NO OVERNIGHT PARKING" Bridal Veil falls lot for two nights had not been ticketed or towed (my note worked!) Either that or the rangers were lazy). Luckily (but unluckily) my phone and ipod and speakers and other stuff were fine but my camera literally bent itself and shattered, so these might be the last photos I take for a while! It's all good, I got a solid year+ worth of climbing with it and it had a good life.
FINAL THOUGHTS: I consider this experience and absolute success. I know I made some logistical errors at various stages along the way which cost me some extra time and energy but I learned soo much and felt like I reached a new level of capability and determination. Of course it's easy to say "what if this and that" to everything that happened - and it's true - if there had been like 70mph winds + snow I might have been seriously seriously screwed - but given what DID happen and how I handled it, I feel like I did an awesome job and consider it a 100% success. It's like my buddy Jim said after I texted him that I was back on the ground and safe: "Yes! That's what I'm f%^ing talking about! Learning without dying is winning! Makes you feel competent eh?!" HAha it sounds crazy but I actually agree. Normally I would say GO FOR IT to anyone on just about anything, but this felt way serious to me and I definitely felt like I spent the whole time making sure I was not about to kill myself, or get stuck, or freeze, or fall to my death. And while I was up there, there were times when I told myself - this is a little too much for me, I don't really ever wanna do this again... too much anxiety/stress/fear/cantbehealthy/etc - but - when you look back, it quickly feels like one of your most treasured experiences. I have never felt such a sense of isolation and self-reliance, ever. It felt like I was on another planet. I know it sounds like it was kind of a reckless experience but at the end of the day I feel like I made all good choices and although I am not going to rush back and jump on a wall alone again anytime soon (at least not when the weather is bad) after I pick up some more experience and get a little more qualified I will definitely be back at it and know that the second time I will have a much more mellow experience. After all, I'm pretty sure feel there's only room to improve from where I am HAHhA...