The Most Fun I've Had All Week

by Bill Folk

Southern Man V 5.8 A2
Washington Column, Yosemite, CA
March 2000

Up until last weekend, I hadn't done a wall in a long time. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome from too many walls with too little rest; too much work, and a focus on free climbing; an attempt on Ten Days After aborted by a freak snow storm, and two years later all I've done are day trips up the Prow and South Face of the Column, and Skull Queen. Steck-Salathe last October was the last real route I'd done. A clear forecast for the weekend and a friend's plan to do the Prow sparked the realization that I've been missing out on one of the things I find most satisfying in climbing: big walls. What to do? My best partner has moved to LA for work and quit climbing; guess I'll have to solo. Nothing too hard, and I've already done most of the easy ones... hmmmm, Coomer says Southern Man is good. Short enough that even as the maiden voyage for my Silent Partner I should be able to get up, down, and back to town in time for work on Monday. So I threw my wall rack in the trunk, grabbed a sleeping bag, and drove to the valley after work Friday.

I arrived at the Ahwahnee parking lot around 10:00 PM, not having decided on a strategy. Hike up and bivy at the base? Hike up and start climbing? Bivy at the car? Finally I shouldered the rack, stuffed my bag, some water, and the ropes into the haul pack, and started the trudge up to the column. I bivied under the overhang of Wing of Bat to avoid anything that might be falling off the Column, and aside from the passage of a climbing party, and the usual raccoons trying to drag off my food bag, I enjoyed an uneventful night.

The next morning, I hiked up another 10 minutes to the start of the routes. I was afraid that I might get stuck behind the other party, but saw them high above on the fourth pitch of Skull Queen: no worries. I racked up, tied in, and started climbing at 7:00. The first pitch flew by -- after I don't know how many trips up the Column I could probably do the first three in my sleep. I planned to run the next two together, but a loop of rope got stuck in a crack, and I had to break them into two. Oh well, one of the drawbacks of soloing. Halfway up the third pitch I got stuck once again: the draw string of my rope bucket had become hopelessly twisted around the lead rope; no amount of pulling would free it, and I had to down climb to the belay and clear the tangle. After this I became very methodical about setting up the rope cleanly, and had no more problems. As I climbed back up I was hit by the ropes tossed by a party on their way down. It was already 10:00 by the time I reached dinner ledge -- 3 hours for three easy pitches that I should have polished off in less than half that time. Okay, so I'm a little rusty...

There is a party on dinner ledge. Nice guys. This is their second day on the route, and the leader is just starting the Kor Roof pitch. They have two Grade VI bags, both stuffed beyond capacity. I've seen pictures of parties in Baffin with less crap than these guys are carrying. The belayer eyes my little haul pack suspiciously, and asks if I'm doing the route in a day. We'll see... They have ledges, and are planning on bivying a couple of pitches up. Whatever, dudes! I scramble up to the start of the next pitch of my route, and get set up. At this point, upon taking my second line out of my pack, I realize that I've made a logistical mistake. I've brought along a 7mm rap line, instead of a full rope, which means that if I bivy on dinner ledge, I can only fix the next two pitches instead of three, which leaves me with four full pitches plus the exit pitch tomorrow. Well, I'll run the next two pitches together, and see how I feel. I'll either go for it in a day, or spend a long afternoon lounging around dinner ledge, and a long day climbing tomorrow. My less than breakneck speed up to this point, and the fact that I have brought bivy gear lead me to suspect what the outcome will be...

The next pitch starts up a short bolt ladder to the first belay which is a joke; no one would actually belay there -- a 50 foot pitch to a hanging belay on two rusty quarter inch bolts. The next pitch starts to get interesting: a nice thin crack which takes RPs, aliens and cam hooks. I arrive at a beefy new anchor, but the topo seems to indicate a belay on gear further up under the overhang of the fifth pitch of the South Face route. Coomer said that the route needs a lot of gear because of natural anchors, so I take advantage of the bolts. Meanwhile, the second in the party on South Face hasn't made it over the Kor Roof yet; in the end it takes him 2 hours to clean the pitch. His partner seems very patient and understanding. I rap back to the ledge and decide not to try for the route in a day. My time on these pitches was okay, and IF I can keep it up I'll top out by dark, but I'm starting to feel a little fatigued (jugging with the haul-pack was a bit of a bitch), so why torture myself? It's the first wall of the season, my first in over a year -- better to relax and enjoy it; there will be plenty of time for speed later on. I settle in to watch the circus on the South Face, and watch the avalanches and ice falls as Half Dome warms up. The weather is so lovely I almost feel cheated: you can't really claim a winter ascent if it was 70 degrees and sunny and you climbed in a t-shirt! I spend the rest of the day basking in the sun and hydrating with water left by other parties. Speaking of which, the guys on South Face decide to bail, although I tell them that cleaning the Kor Roof is the crux of the route. They offer me their water and food, but I've got all I need. Nice guys. They decide to spend another night on the ledge, drinking their week's supply of OE. They don't offer me one. Bastards.

My alarm wakes me at 6:00, but there's no point in getting up yet. On a wall you can't really get moving in the morning until you get moving, if you know what I mean. I'm a little concerned about the next pitch. I've read a couple of trip reports by people who couldn't find where the route leaves the South Face, and I don't want to make the same mistake. I can see the line pretty easily -- there's tat hanging from a couple of fixed pieces. I guess I'll figure it out when I get there.

The next pitch starts with another nice section of thin crack. More Aliens, RPs and cam hooks. Fun fun fun! Coomer's TR has got me worried about running out of gear, so I'm back cleaning like mad. The route joins the South Face for a ways, and now I need to figure out how to get over to the Southern Man crack. Some small ledges seem to correspond to the topo; this must be the place. I set a fat bomber cam, and start to work my way over. It turns out to be more of a tension traverse than a pendulum, and it's quite exciting trying to traverse one handed while keeping tension on the rope through the Silent Partner with the other hand! At full extension I can barely reach what must be the seam, but I can't tell what, if anything, I can fit in it, and I feel like I'm going to slip off and pendulum back into the corner at any moment: the balance is very precarious. I get about a third of my finger tip into the seam: blue Alien. Now, how do I get it off my rack and into the crack? I get in a position where I can let go with my left hand while keeping tension on the rope with my right, and quickly place and grab the cam. Now I let go of the rope and swing over to the seam. At first glance it looks grim. The Alien is under-cammed and starting to rotate out. The slot above begs for a Lost Arrow, but I'm committed to a clean ascent, so I stuff in a cam hook instead. Bomber! Whew, now I can relax and catch my breath. What follows is 30 feet or so of a fine thin seam. Black Alien, cam hook, tiny HB offset, cam hook, hybrid Alien; backcleaning all the way to save gear, and to make cleaning easier. It's not till I'm above the pendulum point that I remember one of the advantages of soloing: I can clean inconvenient pieces on rappel, so there was no reason to backclean. Then a bomber green Alien, whew! Then things ease up, and soon I'm at the belay. I'm so paranoid of running out of gear that I still have an almost complete rack. This would be a theme for the rest of the route.

The next pitch is a grovel up a wide, dirty corner. I find the bat hook hole a partner told me about to bypass the OW moves; I also found the bat hook hole he didn't see to bypass a sawed-off angle in a weird square hole. The next pitches go by in the simultaneous blur of exhaustion and focus that is wall soloing. As the day wanes and I become more tired, the tangles and snags become more annoying, particularly as the wind comes up, but there's nothing to do except keep plugging away. Finally I reach the tree ledge that marks the end of the real climbing. The temptation to rap from here is strong, particularly as it will be dark soon, but I feel the need to top out for the experience to be complete. Plus I'm out of water, and I'm looking forward to the bottles I know I'll find stashed on top. I grunt up the last pitch of easy free climbing. I don't have any pro in, so the weight of the rope is starting to lock up the clove hitch on the Silent Partner, and the loop of rope is snagging on the low angle choss. At a ledge I pull up all the slack, and then unclip the rope from my harness to keep the loop from snagging. A few more moves, and I'm running up the low angle slab. Suddenly the rope drag disappears: the end of the rope has run through the Silent Partner, and is slithering back down the slab. This pitch is supposed to be 160 feet, and it's a 60 meter rope, what's up with that? Stupid ass! I run back down, grab the end of the rope, run back up and anchor it to a tree. I shed the rack, tie off the trail line, and run up to the summit through the snow in my climbing shoes. There on top I find what I'm looking for: bottles of water stuffed under a rock at the bivy platform. I collapse on the level gravel platform with my prize, and for the first time in 10 hours I really relax. Still warm from my exertion I sip the stale water, and enjoy the magnificent moonlit view of Half Dome, while ice and snow rumble and crash down the face. I still have the raps in the darkness to look forward too, but now for a few minutes I can relax.

Soon I begin to cool, so back down I go. Single rope rappels from tree to tree to the left of the gully avoid stuck ropes and loose rock, then double rope rappels down the face. I'm so tired, but I fight to stay focused -- no mistakes here. I double check and back up everything. The 7 mil rap line tangles mercilessly. At one point I feed the long tails from the overhand knot through my rap device, but catch my error before I unclip from the anchor. The thought of it gives me the creeps now, but at the time I was just like, "Oh, better pay attention."

Down, down, down, rope stuck, jumar and free it, down, down, in machine mode, people bivied all over the South Face, trying to talk to me as I pass; I try to be polite, but I'm too focused or too tired to communicate with them, I don't know which. Both probably. Finally I'm capital D Down, where the worst that could happen is a sprained ankle. There's a point on the East Ledges descent from El Cap where you are past all the technical, tricky stuff. Each time we passed that point my partner Quinn would always say, "We made it, we didn't die," as a joke, but there is that point of relief when you are down safe and can relax, and it's a nice point to reach.

It's 2:00 AM in the valley, and I'm rummaging through my car for loose change to feed into the vending machines. I've been through this drill enough times; you'd think I'd leave something nice to eat in my car for afterwards, but no, it's always Fritos and Grandma's Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip cookies, 7-Up and whatever else until I run out of change. Call the girlfriend, I'm okay, made it, see you tomorrow. Call work, I won't be in till noon. Too wasted to drive back to the city, I drive somewhere quiet, sleep in my car, with legs wracked with cramps. I've got the bug again. As I drift off to sleep I wonder what to do next weekend. Ten Days After? Wet Denim? Or maybe take three days and do something bigger...

Run 4-5 together (this will be obvious). You can belay at the new bolts, or on gear where the route joins South Face. On the 6th pitch, follow the South Face pitch until just before it starts curving back right, then lower and pendulum/tension traverse across sloping ledges to the thin seam. On 7 look for bat hook holes to pass wide sections. I know, rapping the South Face is naughty, but if you stay out of the gully and rap from tree to tree till you get to the top of the chimney pitch you won't knock anything down, and I didn't feel like doing the NDG with snow in the dark.

Aliens: 1 ea. black, 2 ea. blue through red, 1 ea. blue/green, green/yellow Hybrids
2 ea. Camalots #.5 to #2
1 ea. Camalots #3, 3.5, 4
HB offsets
Cam hooks
Bat and Skyhook
Rivet hangers
1 bolt hanger

Route goes clean easily. Fixed gear is in pretty good shape; I'd leave the hammer at home.

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