The West Face of The Leaning Tower, North Americas biggest over-hanging rock face, was an obvious choice for a speed ascent during our short trip to Yosemite (November 2010). Our plan was for me to lead the first half and Oli to lead the second half. The ‘average ascent’ time is 3 days, but we were aiming to do the route in under 12 hours.
After managing to hitch a ride to the the end of the trail we hiked up the the start and made camp on a small flat area to the right of the traverse to the base of the route.
As we made-camp we buried our food bags under a pile of rocks in the hope that it would reduce any bear-enticing smells. Oli was not overly keen about sleeping here, and put up a few skinny branches in the hope that it would alert us to any sneaky bears. I slept like a log – Oli probably managing to give himself a bit of bear-paranoia and, as a forest is never quiet at night, did not sleep well at all.
We got up & racked up and traversed to the base of the climb. The traverse was pretty easy, but we roped up to be safe. I started up the first two pitches; aiding a steep overhanging bolt ladder, leaving just single biners on ever 4th bolt for protection. The aim was to be as economical on gear as possible because as we were short fixing the route we needed to move efficiently. We climbed on a single 70m rope and trailed a 50m tag-line for passing up gear to the leader; short-fixing means you rarely meet your second at a belay so the leader needs to be resupplied with protection every so often using the tag-line.
We climbed quickly to a big ledge, traversed right up a funky rock feature with small pro and up towards some free-climbing before hitting a bolt ladder. A couple pitches after this Oli joined me at the belay, we switched over gear, and Oli took the lead.
Oli climbed the overhanging corners fairly quickly and it was not long until he was on the big roof in the top section of the route. That went well, but when it came to cleaning the roof I managed to get myself a bit tied in while trying to get the gear from the back of the route without leaving any pro behind. It ended up with me having to use a shit load of arm power to get out of the situation – pulling myself in to the corner with on hand – holding most my weight while the using the other hand tried to untangle the lower-out cord.
A massive faff and the result was cramping biceps as I got up out of the over-hang and moved up towards the final section of the route. We completed the route and as I racked up the rope on a ledge below the belay Oli could see the sun setting on El Cap – some serious Alpen glow – not that I would find out as, in the few minutes more it took for me to coil the ropes and climb up to him, it was gone.
From there it was a long and tedious rappel down the rubble gully down the back of the route. The 50m tag-line was not really long enough for this job (take two 60m ropes) and by the time we got to the bottom we decided to eat the snacks we had left over and sleep there before heading back in the morning.
The good news was that we did the route in a respectable 10.5 hours and no-one was molested by bears.
In mid October (2010) I was climbing in the Peak District with Oli Lyon (who was spending a time in the UK between Ski seasons). I mentioned that I actually hoped to get to Yosemite this year, but I planned to give it a shot in 2011. He suggested that we could go this year but if we did we would have to go quite soon. I agreed and we confirmed the plan later that evening in the Little John (the only true after-climb pub in Hathersage). The plan was to leave a week later – this conversation is outlined accurately in the cartoon below.
Oli, who had climbed several big-walls before, was keen to get some speed climbing done so we agreed to go with the aim to speed climb as many big walls as possible in 3 weeks which, after travel and a bit of party in San Fran at the end, meant about 2.5 weeks in Yosemite. We agreed to have a ‘clean’ aid ethic meaning no hammered gear – only using clean-aid techniques.
As it happened Oli had a load of his aid gear in his bag so after climbing Regent Street (E2 5c) on lead, I jumped on to try my first bit of clean Aid Climbing. It was pretty easy so we were ready.
We flew out, and stayed at a friend of Oli’s house but being pretty tired so went to bed to get up after about 3 hours sleep to get the coach to where we would catch the train to Merced. From Merced we took another coach to Yosemite. As we arrived in Yosemite we checked in to Camp 4 and shot off to climb an awesome 4 pitch crack climb to get in to the gist of things. Back at Camp 4 we ran into a Japanese guy selling off a load of gear from his climbing past – Oli got some cam hooks and I got a couple of more-or-less new aiders and a ready-modified Gri-Gri – great news as we were planning on short-fixing.
The next day we got our stuff together and got ready to climb what would be my first big wall; The West Face of Washington Column. The West Face is a frequent ‘first’ for climbers getting into big-wall climbing but not usually done in speed climbing style. Oli took the lead – leaving me to jumar and clean. We were double-pitching and short-fixing for speed (short-fixing basically means when the leader pulls the rope up, ties it off while the second jumars and self-belays up the next pitch until the second gets to the belay and puts them on – saving loads of time).
There was one difficult section Oli took a small fall – and I had not quite reached the belay due to having to work out how to clean a steep traverse – which is not all that easy. Half way up the route – we switched and I took the lead.
A I came to my first bit of short-fixing – I actually did not quite know what to do and not really having used a Gri-Gri before I just had to figure it out (I generally prefer to always use a Stich Plate). It is a bit counter intuitive to figure out as you are technically using it upside down and with the rope from you, the belay to the Gri-Gri back to you – it was a bit of a head-fuck making sure I wouldn’t kill myself should I fall. I got what seemed to work logically, tied a knot 15m down the rope and got on with it.
This went generally well for the next few pitches. However somehow, when reaching down to disconnect my aider I didn’t notice that the Caraniner at the top of it’s wire-gate had flipped open off the biner’s nose and, as I pulled it up using the daisy chain, the aider came off and drifted off with the wind diagonally down the wall. Fail.
I lead the rest of the aid pitches using a 120cm sling with a couple of knots in it. I hit the free climbing, which included some awesome awkward off widths. As I got to the top of the route it was getting dark (the days are fairly short around the beginning of November) and by the time Oli got up (without a head torch) it was pitch black. The last pitch is full of very loose gravelly rock; a real hazard to be wary of if people are climbing behind/above you. I climbed this very very carefully.
I was totally parched, we had about a litre of water each on the route itself, a cerial bar or two for breakfast and all day we had only had a Snickers bar (although I had half of my one left). We got our ropes coiled up and started heading up the hill to find the way off.
The top-out to decent route is difficult to find in the dark and as we only had one torch it was a real pain. We tried to find the way down for about 2 hours but we kept coming to edges, or steep drops and the reality was it was dangerous. I was keen to get down to drink water, by lips were thick and dry and I really needed a drink. We ate the half a Snicker bar which was partly welded to my pocket.
After finding a flat area and dropped our bags for a minute – and Oli pushed the bivi option again and (despite resisting the previous times) I agreed. After looking around we knew this was one of the few flat areas – so we elected to sleep where we stopped. It was around zero degrees C and Oli was wearing a tee-shirt and hoody while I had a thin Rab jacket, jeans and a beanie; it was going to be a cold night. As we laid the rope out and started to get ready for bed we tried to make some insulation using of the vegetation but being an arid area it is all sparsely leaved and, as insulation, useless.
After about an hour of sleep/dozing interrupted by frequent cramping I came around to see Oli standing up shivering in what looked like near hypothermia- it was at this point I gestured with my head in a comedy ‘come to daddy’ manner for Oli to be little spoon.
Spooning makes a huge difference and, as we were both so cold, it really was not awkward – in fact it was a pretty vigorous spoon, certainly a more vigorous and longer a spoon than a girlfriend has benefited from, which included my hands tucked in his armpits to keep fingers warm. We tried swapping spoon roles but being the taller of the two of us it just did not seem to work.
6am came and we got up, ran on the spot for a while and with the sun due up fairly soon we racked up all our gear and got ready to make a move back down the hill. In the light it was much easier to find where we were meant to go – mainly because we had some reference of where we were.
As we walked down the hill we found water bubbling out the rock. It was incredible to drink after so little in the last 30 hours. We got back to our bags with gear we left at the bottom, which included some more water, and we headed back to Curry Village.
Arriving at the buffet we decided that $15.50 was a bit steep for break-fast, dispite barely eating for the last 24 hours, but on the way out a kind chap gave us a couple of free tickets he and his wife could not use.
We ate a lot of food. Got back to Camp 4 and got rested for some planned free climb routes the next day.