Five Long Days
by Geoff Jennings
West Face of Leaning Tower (V, 5.10, C2)
June 10-15, 1999
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My first Big Wall (multiple days on the rock). I'd been thinking about this
day since I started climbing. Actively thinking about it since my first
trip (post-childhood) to Yosemite Valley, the home and mecca of big wall
climbing. When I met Brian and started climbing with him a few months ago,
it wasn't long before the conversation turned to the idea of doing a big
wall climb. The more we climbed together the more we discussed it, until
a few months later when we set a date...then developed a plan, picked a
climb, began gathering the gear, and started practicing some of the specialized
techniques we would need. This would be a first for both of us.
Tues, June 8 - I get an e-mail from Brian, his haulbag had shown up just
in time (thanks Russ!). He sends me a final list of things to bring, and
some final thoughts on the climb. Our plan is to climb the Czech Route,
near Yosemite Falls.
Wed, June 9 - I wake up early. My gear is in careful piles in the spare
bedroom. I haven't attempted to fit it all in my haulbag, and find it hard
to believe it will fit. I head to work, but I'm way to excited to get anything
done. Brian is driving over from Barstow, and shows up around lunchtime.
I leave work at noon. We eat, then pack the stuff into Brian's Bronco, and
Leave Bakersfield. We camp just outside the park, and pack all our stuff,
and do the final culling of gear. Still a BIG pile of stuff.
Thurs- We wake up early and drive into the park in time to avoid paying
the $20 entrance fee. I'd been cold the night before, and have forgotten
my wool hat, so we wait for the stores to open. During this time we check
out our intended climb. Hmm. That approach looks heinous. Real ugly.. Hmm...maybe
we should do something else. Out comes the guide book. Leaning Tower looks
good. Pick out a hat. We figure we can go in today, hike to the base, do
the easy climbing, climb a little. Sleep. Do the bulk of the route the next
day, the finish and get down on the third. Three days car to car. I toss
12 quarts of water into the haulbag. I grab my backpack and hike a load
of gear in, ropes and hardware mostly. Standing at the base of the climb
is really intimidating. The whole wall looms overhead. It looks big and
scary. Hike back out for the haulbag. We start climbing late, and only get
one pitch (the climb is broken into sections each about a rope length long,
called pitches) done before dark. We fix a rope (attach it to our high point)
and rappel back down to the ledges. Although it was mostly hiking and easy
climbing to get there, even our first camp is exposed and high of the ground.
Fri- We start the climb in earnest, although everything takes a long time.
Just ascending the rope to our high point is scary (you have to lower yourself
out from the wall and are just hanging out in space, hundreds of feet of
the ground) and slow, and tiring. We climb until after dark, making the
Awanahee ledge system, where we will camp. We'd planned on doing much more,
but every stage of the game seemed to be taking us a long time. Climbing,
following and hauling the bags.
Sat- We've now recognized the climb is going to take us longer than we thought.
Retreat is even discussed, but the route overhangs so dramatically that
that seems like it would be a big pain. We decide to press on. A long, long
day leaves us just three pitches higher, and not near the next system of
ledges. During a belay, a bird flies right into me, the appears to tumble
off the wall. Weird. Having nowhere to sleep, we fix ropes and rappel back
to the Awanahee. I get disheartened and frustrated by our slow movement,
and the fact that we had to return to same ledges. Brian and I are both
getting tired and are really beginning to wonder about our water, and how
much longer it's gonna take us. Retreat is again discussed and dismissed.
Two much faster climbers (Matt and Jason from Montana) have caught us and
are sleeping in their portaledge near us.
Sun- We wait for Matt and Jason to start before we do. They are moving quickly
and we don't want to hold them up, so they pass us. We lose precious time
here. I'm down to my last 2.5 quarts of water. I could easily drink it all
right them, but I ration myself. By the time we ascend out ropes to our
high point, and re-haul our bags, the day is growing late. I start out to
take the lead on the next pitch, but I get scared after taking about a 10
foot fall. I landed VERY uncomfortably with my legs on either side of a
small corner. I wonder if I will ever be able to have children. We've waited
a long time for Matt and Jason to finish the pitch, and then after I decide
I don't want to finish the lead, and switch with Brian, more time is gone.
I'm now obsessing over water. I can feel the weight of the bottle on my
hip, and it takes all my concentration to not drink it all. I dream of a
3000 ft straw that would reach the river below. The distant sounds of the
river are an agonizing tease. Brian does a masterful job leading the pitch,
which goes up and around a pretty good sized roof. Even following it is
scary. I aid through the pieces, with myself belayed on a grigri. I arrive
at the belay around nightfall. This ledge is the smallest we've spent the
night on. Barely wider than my shoulders. We sip a few mouthfuls of water
each. I eat a can of tinned peaches, sucking on each tiny chunk for minutes,
eeking out the tiniest bits of moisture. Brian and I are both exhausted,
but we know the top is near.
Mon- we wake up, reorganize, and start climbing. The final pitches are fun
and go relatively quickly, but we are completely out of water, tired, and
want to be down. We are into our fifth day of what was supposed to be a
three day trip. We reach the top around 11 am, to find a bottle of gatoraid
and a tin of fruit cocktail, which I think was left for us by Matt and Jason,
thanks guys! Both of us are weak from dehydration and I have to sit down
repeatedly. The descent from the route is down the backside, and we do a
serious of rappels to reach a gulley. The rest of our descent is to one
side, but a river (above Bridaveil falls) is down the hill to the other.
We dump our gear and dash down the gulley. It's steep, loose and choked
with Manzanita (a densely growing bush) but my megalomaniacal obsession
with reaching the water has me plunging through it with abandon. I reach
the river, strip, and plunge in. The cool water and having something to
drink was an amazing good feeling. I drank, laid in the sun, and drank some
more. The only thing that darkened this bright hour of my life was the knowledge
that we still had to get down. Filled a few water bottles, and went back
up the gulley to our packs. The series of rappels, and lowering the gear
was through a deep chimney, filled with loose rocks. Perhaps scarier than
the climb. I was glad there was no one else doing the descent, as our every
move would send down a shower of rocks. We reached the ground around nightfall,
strapped all our gear onto our already heavy haulbags, then began staggering
down the hill. Around midnight we finally made it into the parking lot.
Five long days. Fun.
----We drove back to Bakersfield that night, stopped in Fresno at Denny's
to eat, and got back to my apartment around 7:10 am Tues. I'd slept some
in the car, but was still super tired. I showered and went to work at 8.
Brian crashed for a few hours on my couch, the unpacked his truck and drove
back to Barstow. I learned a lot. For a couple of newbies to the wall thing
I think we did Ok. We had hoped to do it without adding any fixed gear to
the climb, or needing to use a hammer and pitons, and we didn't, which I
was pleased with. There were things I'd definitely do different, things
I'd change before I do another big wall, but mostly I'm pleased we did it.
Even though it was hard, and had retreat been easier we might not have,
I'm glad we did it. It's funny. If you had asked me Sunday whether I'd do
another, my emphatic answer would have been NO! But already the post trip
haze has set in, where instead of remembering the discomforts, I remember
eating Pop-Tarts for breakfast, with my feet dangling over the edge. Instead
of the moments of fear, I think of the sounds the Swifts make as they bomb
past. I'm sure there will be another big wall in my future....