May, 2009. I'm itching to climb something big. A year ago, my girlfriend(now Wife with overdue Baby!)Mozie asked me to take her climbing. I hadn't climbed since 2000, and even then I mostly did toproping around Castle Rock and Planet Granite. We started climbing more and more, and within months we were taking trips to Red Rocks. I bought a full trad rack second-hand from an aid climber buddy who just hikes up big snowy Mountains nowadays (like all 7 summits! Good work Bill Tyler!!!). Come spring 09 I think I'm ready for a bigwall. But I don't know anybody who climbs bigwalls. I ask 19 year old Mike Rael, an enthusiastic boulderer who's been in it for about a year. He's pulled V6 outdoors and V8 in the gym during his very short climbing career. We've climbed at the gym and bouldered a few times at Castle. I ask and he immediately says yes. He also reminds me he's never climbed outdoors with a rope....At least he's enthusiastic.
I take him sport climbing at the Grotto, he flashes his first sport lead ever. The 5.10b Wing of Bat. He also flashes AC Devil Dog, 5.10d, and gets Snake Bite, 5.11b on toprope. He also tells me a bit about his "Past before climbing". Growing up in Downtown San Jose, he spent the first 16 years of his life on the street with local gangs. After running from the cops with a crack-rock hidden behind his molars he realized he wasn't on the right path. He walked by the Touchstone Bouldering Gym that used to be off 1st and San Fernando. He gave it a try and hasn't stopped since, often spending 5 days a week at Planet Granite bouldering for up to 8 hours at a time.
With some sport climbing under his belt, it's time to learn aid. Since I've never done it, we read through a book together and take the gear up to Pyramid Crack, 5.10a at Castle Rock.
After we both aid the crack, all 7 placements each, we decide we're all set for a Yosemite Wall. We get so excited we both solo Pyramid Crack and head to REI and blow 700 dollars on Ascenders, a Mini Traxtion, and whole bunch of other stuff we think we'll need. Our jugging practice takes place outside of Planet Granite in a tree.
In late May we head up to the Valley to conquer the South Face of the Column.
Leaving SJ after work we made it to the Ahwahnee parking lot by midnight. We botch the approach, walking back and forth past the Column's climber approach trail before bushwacking up the talus. I've got a heavy ass haul bag on my back, and we disturb a bear on the way up. It roars at me but heads the other way. This might have been the first time I thought to myself "what the f*@k are we doing?". We bivied at the base of the cliffs, well west of the start of the route.
Up at 6, at the route by 7, and...there's 2 other parties lined up. By 9 we start the route. We decide I'm leading every pitch since I've at least trad climbed before. The route starts with an easy 5.8 free pitch but a 5.13 haul up the low angle slab. Am I the first to wear a hole in his haulbag on his 1st haul on his first wall?
The second pitch looks awesome, a bitchin dihedral that goes free at 5.10. I take the opportunity to practice some aid climbing. An hour later Mike juggs up the line and cleans the pitch. This takes him an hour.
The next pitch is another easy free pitch, and Mike asks if he can take it. Maybe I challenged him to it, but either way, he grabs the rack and heads up. Bad idea. He gets about 30 feet up and starts freaking out. He cant get any gear to hold and the yosemite granite proves much trickier than he bargained for. It takes 2 hours of fear for Mike to make it to the anchors and set up the haul. I jug up and we make Dinner ledge by about 1:30.
Dinner Ledge is awesome! Big and sandy, with unbelievable views. The temps have reached the mid nineties, so we set up what we think may compete for the best bivy ever constructed. We decide at this point that Big Wall climbing is the coolest hobby ever invented and take some well deserved naps.
Awake by 5:00, I decide I should fix the next pitch to give us a head start tomorrow morning. The daunting Kor Roof looms overhead. Some 5.8 free climbing leads to the bolted roof. The exposure turns my stomach. Layton must have been a big dude, cause somehow he drilled bolts that I can barely reach! I'm 6'3, so small folks must really struggle with this pitch.
I fix the rope and rappel back down to Dinner Ledge.
A party of four comes up to the ledge at sunset. 2 plan to climb first thing in the morning, the other 2 are going to rap off with all the sleeping gear. Amazingly, my Iphone has signal up here so I play live Zynga poker until 10. In the middle of the night, I get startled awake by a ring tailed cat walking across my legs!
The other party seems to know what they're doing, so we let them go first. He asks me, "you've got some Aliens for the traverse right?". I say, "no, do I need them?". "I guess you'll find out!" he says as he cruises the Kor Roof like a pro.
When it's our turn we start up the fixed line, getting a wicked lesson in jugging free hanging ropes. It takes forever but we make it and I lead off on the first of the traverses. I'm carrying 20 camming units but only a few of them fit the narrow pin scars. I'm forced into leaprogging my TCU's. This C1 pitch is tough for me, but I make it to the pendulum and get to the next anchor. Mike slowly cleans the pitch, reaches the pendulum and asks "now what?"
I try and describe the process of cleaning a pendulum, but he just doesn't get it. "Ummm....OK, just do a one arm lock off on the fixed sling, unclip, and let go" I tell him.
"You wan't me to do WHAT!!!" he screams.
"Either that or we head down!" I yell back.
1000 feet off the ground, I realize what I'm asking him to do. I figure there's not a chance of hell that he's actually gonna swing free, but to my surprise, he grabbs the sling, unclips and yells "Woooooooooooo!!!!!". He dropps off the rock and swings 30 feet through the air.
"That was the best thing I've ever done in my life!" he's saying as he cleans the last few pieces of the pitch. Mike is beaming. I'm stressing.
The next pitch heads straight up over a bulge and then traverses hard left, again on narrow, upward piton scars. I pull up on a bolt right off the belay and reach high to put in a little HB offset nut. I'm thinking I'm hot sh#t until the HB blows and I fall back onto Mike at the belay. My hearts beating way too fast as I pull up again and try to seat the nut better this time. Much bounce- testing ensues (thanks Chris Mac for the You-tube video's!!). What seems like hours later I make the next belay. It's getting very hot and we're moving really slow. I'm running out of water in my camel pack.
The next pitch is a very thin crack that shoots straight up, switches to some mandatory 5.7 free climbing, and then heads straight up another thin crack. I think I used both full sets of nuts on this pitch, almost soiling my pants as I work my way up above the smallest nuts I've ever placed. It's here that I question whether or not I should be up here. I have 2 hours to think about it since it takes Mike that long to clean my over jammed nuts. (hehe, I wrote "over jammed nuts.")
When Mike makes it to the 6 inch ledge my one butt cheek has been sitting on for 2 hours, I'm over this big wall. It's almost 5 and we still have to rappel the whole route. We decide that the remaining few free pitches look likely to snag our ropes, so we decide to bail. We climbed all the technical aid pitches and made it to the top of pitch 7. I'm amazed we've made it this far and feel no tinge of pride as we slowly rappel back to Dinner Ledge. We make it off the cliff as the sky goes black.
Even though we diddn't top out, both of us feel hugely accomplished. Mike summed it up when he declared "I feel like I could pick up the car right now!" when we finally make it back to the Ahwahnee. We drive out of the park with gigantic smiles on our faces, knowing we tested ourselves to the max and got away with it unscathed. As we eat through thousands of calories at Denny's on the way home, we know that we'll share many more adventures in the vertical.