West Face C2F 5.7
Trip ReportLeo Houlding FA of Westie Face story
I am working on Yosemite Big Walls 3rd Edition and I came across this FA account of the Westie Face by Leo Houlding
The West Face of the Leaning Tower
by Leo Houlding
The West face of the Leaning Tower was first climbed by Warren Harding, Glen Denny and Al Macdonald in 1961.
In characteristic style he drilled over 50 bolts through the initial ridiculously steep, “impossible” wall to where an obvious discontinuous line of grooves leads to another 30 bolt ladder, through a large roof to the top.
Royal Robbins made the second ascent and first ever solo ascent of a big wall dubbing the Tower “ The most overhanging face in North America”. Comparable in angle to Kilnsey North buttress but a thousand feet high and flanked by the mighty Bridalveil Falls the tower is an incredible feature.
The route starts three hundred feet up at the end of a narrow ledge traverse. Halfway up is the Ahwahnee ledge, a luxurious 4/5 person en-suit bivi equipped with in-situ fixed lines (named after the five star hotel in the valley).
Harding’s rusty, old bolts where replaced in 1997 by the American safe climbing association, good work boys. This, combined with it’s tactical ease and comparatively short length make the West Face one of the most popular beginner walls in the valley although the extreme initial exposure overwhelms many would be ascensionists.
The usual style is a two or three day ascent with a night at the base and a night on Ahwahnee.
I first climbed the route in a five and a half hour push with Jason Pickles and Ammon Mcneely in October 2000.
The initial bolt ladder would clearly never go (so prove me wrong!) but the rest of the route appeared to be climbable, including a variation avoiding the upper bolt ladder. It looked outstanding, each pitch completely different to the last but at a fairly consistent standard and all incredibly steep.
From the top of the first pitch bolt ladder, a long, steep, shallow groove offered technical pumpy climbing for a hundred and fifty feet to a nasty boulder problem finish on to the Ahwahnee.
Then a unique ramp feature splits the bulging blank face out right to the start of the next bolt ladder. A vegetated seam runs parallel to the bolt ladder and joins it at its end where crack systems continue.
Perhaps Harding drilled past this obvious line to avoid the large concerningly hollow blocks it is necessary to negotiate on the low traverse to the vegetated seam? From the artificial belay (no hands-off rest) at the top of the bolt ladder a fun pitch teasingly graded 5.10+ on the aid topo goes at around 5.11+!
The deceptive roof comes next. A slab below disguises the scale of the ceiling but when one pulls the crux into the back of the cave its size is blatant. Beyond it’s distant lip yet more juggy steepness terminates on a comfortable recovery ledge, a wild pitch.
A final typically overhung corner followed by a traverse top out makes this yet pitch another exciting jummar for the third man!
The traverse top out marks the end of the climbing but is not the true ‘top out’. From the lovely ‘chill out’ finish ledge a scramble above the abyss heads to the knife-edge ridge summit of the tower. Huge slabs of rock overhang the face, guarding the summit except for one small gap. Upon mantling through this window one is confronted with a breath taking view of El Cap in it’s entirety. The spell binding hanging valley above Bridalveil falls and the cluster of domes that is the Cathedrals makes this perhaps the most spectacular top out in the world.
At the beginning of May 2001 Jason and I found ourselves back on the Leaning Tower with a friend Javier Sepulveda. He is a competent climber but not an experienced wall rat. Jas and I have spent a while hanging around on ledges in high places and, as with anything, one can become complacent. Jav’s intermittent sighs of contentment or yells of
“This is BRILLIANT” reminded us of the majesty of our playground. His terrified cries as he repeatedly ‘took the ride’ on free hanging jummars caused Jas and I endless amusement.
We were in no rush so we set up a comfortable Camp on the Ahwahnee from which to prepare the route for a one day free ascent. I spent an afternoon working the pitch leading to the ledge on abseil, carefully chalking the holds and deciphering the sequences. That evening, to my great annoyance, I fell off the last move of the ramp pitch on my onsight attempt.
The next day Jas aided the upper bolt ladder and linked it into the next pitch. I spent a while on top rope cleaning the seam parallel to the bolt ladder and checking out the gear. The climbing was hard E5 but two ropes would be necessary for protection. At 59.5m a truly long pitch.
To spice things up a bit we got Jav to lead the roof pitch. Not being an aid climber, it took him ages. As his frustration grew our entertainment improved. Darkness was fast engulfing and with one pitch to go along with the harrowing descent there was no time to work the final pitches. We stepped up the pace a little. Jav seemed quite startled by the gear change. We topped out convinced we could free it in a day.
Jav had to leave for work so it was just Jas and I who returned. We jugged to the Ahwahnee and spent the rest of the day wiring the pitch below and the ramp above. Next morning after providing our guests with fresh coffee and breakfast we went up to prepare the next pitch. With the intention of returning for lunch we hauled up the line fixed down from the ledge and fixed it to the top of the ramp, leaving the camp in a ‘lived in state’ complete with unpacked sleeping bags and our trainers.
In no time at all we were below the roof with all the climbing to that point thoroughly dialled. It seamed pointless to descend so early so we continued to the top. The roof went at E6 and the final pitch a stern E5.
Topping out again we knew the descent was going to be tough. To save our precious climbing boots we descended the wall, hiked to the road (a considerable walk) and hitched back to camp 4… barefoot!
Now we were ready for the push.
On Wednesday 16th May we set off from camp 4. I led every pitch with no falls. Jas followed everything with a couple of rests.
Once again we topped out. This time the elusive Peregrines that we had heard calling but had not seen swooped by to congratulate us.
Intent on returning for photographs we left our gear on the ledge and our fixed ropes in place.
A week slipped by on the valley floor with all our sleeping and cooking gear conveniently stashed halfway up the tower.
Eventually we returned with Corey Rich to make some glamour shots. In the burnt out light of the midday we retired to Ahwahnee to kill sometime before the enchanting light of evening.
Stove and cigarettes dying to be ignited we despaired at our stupidity. Little irritates me more than having no light (except perhaps no skins). We killed the time trying to create fire using various Boy Scout methods. I was absolutely convinced that Corey’s big lens was going to work but alas success was not ours.
By the final red rays of the setting sun I began to pull the ropes on the last abseil and so end our affair with the Leaning Tower. Or so I thought, the ropes jammed. Unwilling to jummar off a kink we ditched the rope and halved our descent loads intent on returning the next day.
Jas’s trip was almost over so we put off rescuing the gear in favour of bagging some more classics. Finally the day of Jason’s bus we went up to get the gear.
Originally a 'throw away' comment the idea we might be able to aid climb the route in under two hours grew on me. Jas was keen so instead of simply freeing the stuck rope from the top of the first pitch we decided to do the whole route.
One hour fifty nine minutes latter we enjoyed the stunning top out once again. Hurriedly we descended and hitched back to camp in time for Jas to pack and catch his bus at Four O’clock.
The next day was my second to last in Yosemite. Hanging in the parking lot, the Pickles gone, the forecast said tomorrow would be 97 degrees and humid. I was not going to get to climb the Captain this trip, was I?
Singer had talked of an ascent of the Nose leaving the parking lot at noon, without taking head torches.
I raised this point, it was 10.15. His eyes sparkled and he put on a pink, sleeveless Lycra top. I could tell he was excited. We began guzzling Red Bull. We started climbing at 12.40.
On the third pitch (of 33) I pulled up all the rope (over 100 feet) fixed it to the belay and set off soloing up a slight ramp. Confronted by a difficult move 10’ higher I stuffed in a piece and pulled on it to reach up.
PING! It rang.
I let out the kind of cry one is only capable of making when one is genuinely convinced that one has really blown it. My visions of a 100’ factor 2 fall were narrowly avoided by my feline falling instinct. Clawing down the slab I managed to grind down the ramp and stick the four inch wide belay ledge. Hair raising. In our fifth hour we passed a party who were on their fifth day!
Using the speed techniques of short fixing, back cleaning and simo-climbing we topped out at 7.42 and made it down just before dark. A brilliant day to end a brilliant Spring in the Valley.
The Westie Face (W. Face of the Leaning Tower)
E7 A0, 6c, 6b, 6b, 6c, 6b - 800 feet
V – A0, 5.13b, 12b, 12c, 12d, 13a, 12c
FA: Warren Harding, Glen Denny, Al Macdonald 1961
FFA: Leo Houlding, Jason Pickles 16th May 2001
Speed record: 1.59 Leo Houlding, Jason Pickles 21st May 2001
Clarification of terms
Basically means leaving no gear. After an aid move is made the piece is removed leaving the leader with a full rack. Free carabiners are left on fixed gear for protection and if necessary a piece can be left.
On arriving at a belay the leader takes in all the rope and fixes it using a clove hitch (backed up). Then the leader continues aid solo, without a belay whilst the second jummars and cleans the pitch as quickly as possible.
Simply climbing simultaneously . Primarily a technique for easier ground. Both climbers ascend at the same time with a short length of rope and at least three pieces of gear between them. Using this method roles are reversed, that is the second must not fall.
Using these techniques makes it possible to climb a route such as the Nose (35 pitches standard ascent five days) in around four pitches or blocks in as little as four and a half hours. However, in speed climbing there is no margin for error.
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