by Rex Pieper

"Ten Days After" (VI 5.7 A3)
Washington's Column
Yosemite National Park, California
August 1999


It had been a month and a half since my ascent of "Mescalito" with Kathy Dicker and I had a fever. Big wall fever. I was jonesing to do another wall in the worst way, but didn't have a week or more to spare.

I began to look at the shorter walls, keeping an eye open for the perfect fit. Eric Coomer had once said that "Ten Days After" was one of the best lines on the Column and that was good enough for me. I asked him for the updated rack, but no other beta. I wanted to preserve the adventure.

At first I considered soloing it, but again, my timeframe didn't allow it. So I asked a friend I met thru rec.climbing, Robert Fonda to join me. The odd numbered pitches were all A2 except one and I figured that we could just swing leads with me taking the crux pitches.

Ten Days After, VI 5.7 A3

Notice the obvious, worn line of "The Prow" to the left.
A climber on "The Prow" is visible just above his haulbag in the upper third of the picture

A plan was formed, the date set and soon we were in the Valley. The next morning we humped loads up the trail towards the base of Washington's Column. Very near the end of the trail, Robert slipped on some loose talus and the haulbag on his back hammered him into the ground. He put out his arms to stop himself, only to end up wracking his right elbow. Almost immediately he went into shock.

Our ascent was over, even before we had left the ground. We were both pretty disappointed, but took solace in the knowledge that since we hadn't actually started climbing yet, it couldn't be considered a "bail."

The next day I was back in Los Angeles. The fever still burned. I called my alternate partner, Mike Esparza, whom I also met thru rec.climbing and told him that his number came up. He was stoked, but work and family obligations put off another attempt at the climb for three weeks.

The fever burned and faded over those weeks in a kind of sick cycle. Anticipation alternated with apathy because it was still weeks away. But eventually the day came and Mike showed up at my door. It was 8 am on a Saturday morning. Mike was fresh off from pulling a 12-hour graveyard shift at his "wafer-tech" lab job, having worked the same shift 4 days in a row. We threw my gear into his car and blasted out of town.

We arrived in Yosemite at about 3:30 p.m., pulled into the Lodge, bought some beer, went to the parking lot, racked gear, drove to the Ahwahnee parking lot and began hiking. We were efficient. We were driven. We were burning with that same fever.

We arrived at the base of the route around 6 p.m. I picked up the water and canned food I had stashed a few weeks earlier and Mike led the first pitch of the Prow. He hauled the bags as I jugged the line with Half Dome glowing orange behind me.

Mike Esparza cruising up the first pitch of "The Prow"

We were on the route. No fixing ropes or otherwise dicking around this time for us. We both just wanted to get committed as fast as possible. Life was good, the fever was subsiding.

I awoke early in the doublewide portaledge to the feeling of shuddering...shivering. Mike had only brought a fleece blanket on the advice of a "friend," as opposed to bringing a sleeping bag. Light, but cold. I tossed him my Polarguard filled jacket and tried to sleep another half hour until the alarm went off.

The morning rituals and business went pretty smooth, especially considering we had never climbed before together. Soon I was cruising up the second pitch of the "Prow," escaping to the right near the end of the pitch to a rivet ladder joining "Ten Days After."

We had skipped the original start of "TDA" because it's fairly grassy, wet and unaesthetic. The "Prow" variation is much cleaner and far more classic.

Pitch 3 of "TDA" is gorgeous. It's a magnificent golden corner leading up to a roof. Mike led the pitch with style, leapfrogging cams a long ways in the consistantly sized crack. The top of the pitch slowed him down a bit with it's technical and thin placements.

Soon I was leading out of the belay along the underside of a roof, much like the second pitch of "Zodiac." The major difference is that when the corner is rounded, "TDA" drops you into an overhanging dihedral. The corner was fairly difficult and one of the crux pitches of the route. Many copperheads and HB offsets along with the odd rivet and pin got me up the steep corner.

I reached the belay to find a bent gate carabiner hanging from one of the bolts. Booty! It would be our good fortune to find a lot of booty on this route. Many brand new stoppers and several carabiners clipped to fixed gear. We're not sure why they were left as none of the stoppers took more than a nut tool to clean and the free biners were a complete mystery. The booty gods were smiling on us for sure.

. . . .

Mike leading the stellar Pitch 3 (left),
and his favorite, the overhanging dihedral of Pitch 5 (right)

Mike continued leading up the shady overhung corner of Pitch 5 as evening began to cast its long shadows across the Valley floor. He later said that this was one of his favorite pitches. It's fairly consistantly 3/4" wide near the top and took a lot of aliens as well as many of our offset nuts.

He hauled and I jugged in the dark. Setting up camp in the crowded dihedral was a bit awkward, but we were quickly developing a system. Things came together and soon we were eating dinner and talking shit. The moon was getting full and illuminated the walls around us. We spotted some lights near the top of the Porcelain Wall. Later we would hear that Eric George and Bryan Law had just put up a new route over there. Mike broke out two Vicodin tablets, gave me one and we both were asleep in minutes.

I had some bizarre dreams that night, yet was unable to remember much in the morning. The sky began to lighten, silhouetting Half Dome. We broke camp and I was leading by 7:30 a.m.

Pitch 6 begins with a few moves on Zamac rivets, hardware store fasteners that only hold a few hundred pounds and while they look like a Rawl buttonhead, are worthless for catching a fall. These time bombs broke out of the corner system that continues upward as "Electric Ladyland" to several fixed circleheads in a stellar horizontal knife-cut leading left. The crack jogged and I encountered a bizarre rotten hole that took a fairly decent Hybrid Alien. I love these cams and take them on every lead. More thin pins and fixed heads led across towards a hidden corner behind a sharp arete. I rounded the arete and was greeted by a bent 1/4" bolt hanging partway out of the rock. Two other 1/4"-er's and a funky "mystery bolt" with a corroded hanger made up the belay. I backed them up with a poor pin and stopper. Mike lowered out the bags and I hauled them up to the belay only to find that our 9 mm static line had taken a core shot while going around the arete from the "Electric Ladyland" dihedral. Not a good start to the day. Some duct tape and a word of thanks that only the sheath was cut and not the core, and we were back in business. Mike bitched a little about having to reclimb the traversing pitch. Thankfully it was fairly short. It was photogenic though and I got some great photos.

Mike funking out a pin on the traversing Pitch 6

While he cleaned the pitch I had begun drilling a new bolt for the anchor. I put in a bomber 3/8" Fixe bolt with a fat Fixe hanger here. Mike arrived, grabbed what he wanted for the next pitch and headed off up a thin corner as I finished the hole and slammed in the bolt.

Reid's guide had the start of Pitch 7 marked as A1, with some A2+ way up high in a flake with fixed heads. Mike hadn't done anything much harder than A1 with his only wall ascents being the "South Face" of the Column, "West Face" of Leaning Tower, "Moonlight Buttress" and "Lurking Fear," so I knew this pitch might prove a bit challenging for him.

Mike showed no hesitation as he cruised up the corner, past a fixed angle and some fixed heads to a rivet. Somewhere in the back of my mind Eric Coomer's tale of taking a 20 foot fall on this pitch began to scream for attention. I tried to push it back into the dark recesses and sent Mike some positive energy up the rope with a word of encouragement.

Just beyond the rivet is a large flake that is climbed along its underside. The crack separating the flake from the wall was very thin with the exception of a thumb-sized pod at it's base. Mike pasted in a #4 alumnihead here, his first ever on lead. It blew when he bounce tested it. Next he tried a knifeblade in the crack. It rang true, even to my ears, 35 feet below. He was in business.

While he had been figuring out the sequence of protection I was busy at the belay organizing everything. I noticed that the lower out line we had used on the traverse was blowing in the wind, getting dangerously close to some flakes sixty feet below. I bent down in my bosun's chair to grab the cord and shove it into it's bag while Mike pounded in another pin high above.

The next sound I heard was the jangling sound of the rack as Mike began to fall. I instinctively turned my head to see what had happened when I felt a sharp impact on the top of my helmet, just above my left ear. Stunned, I watched Mike come to a stop 8 feet below me to my right. He had fallen 40 to 45 feet over the sharp arete that I had rounded to reach the belay.

"Fuuuuuuuuuuuuucccccckkkkkkk...." said Mike, as he turned himself upright.

"Dude you hit me" I said, lowering myself back into the bosun's chair with the rappel mode on the GriGri.

"No way. I didn't feel anything."

I took off my helmet to check for damage and there, imprinted in the side of my PUTZL Meteor helmet was the shape of his hammer's copperhead pick. As if he had thrust it like a sword instead of swung it like a hammer.

"Your hammer got me. Didn't you have it clipped to you? Don't let it hang. It turns into a flail" I admonished, shaken but relatively unhurt.

"I was USING it, bro. It's still in my hand" Mike retorted.

"Fuuuuccckckk...that's wicked" I replied. "Look. Your ScreamAids totally blew. Their biners are still hanging onto some of that pro!"

I've fully extended Yates ScreamAids before, but never seen the tie-off/clip-in loops pull completely away from the main bartacked webbing. Mike looked at the accumulation of junked gear hanging at his tie-in point. Two failed ScreamAids and a blown head w/ an extended ScreamAid. He was suspended from a rusty fixed pin by another fully extended ScreamAid.

. . . .

Mike attempting the crux, Pitch 7

Now you see him, now you don't!

After a few moments he pulled back into the belay and we discussed our options. Mike had had enough. The pitch was way over his head. I was still a bit dazed from my Close Encounter of the Hammer Kind. I looked left and saw a line of bolts leading to the "Prow" only 50 feet away. We could traverse and finish on the "Prow." Leave the blown gear hanging in the wind to fuck with the next party's mind. We could also just get over there and bail. I was quickly seeping into a funk. Mike was out of it, having just taken the biggest ride of his life. I was reeling from a head injury and not relishing jumping on a lead that had spit out both Coomer, the wall vet and Mike, the pseudogumby, without distinction.

While sitting there debating our options, I had to laugh. Only months earlier I had briefly knocked out Kathy Dicker when I tagged her helmet with my boot in a fall right above the belay on "Mescalito" when an expanding block did just that.

"Payback is a bitch" I laughed. "Oh fuck it. Put me on belay." I knew that I had to step up to the roulette wheel and take my spin. If I had bailed or jumped over to the "Prow" it would haunt me forever.

We lost a fair amount of time swapping the lead, but sooner than I would have liked, I was back at the fixed angle that caught Mike. The copperhead he had used was busted mid-cable so I placed another. Next, I jumped on an alumnihead and a rivet. It was eerie clipping a new runner to the carabiners that also held blown ScreamAid remnants. I knew full well what a fall on this pitch looked like, for I had just witnessed it. There was no doubt. Fuck up and go for a ride.

From the rivet I placed a #2 Lost Arrow where Mike had put in a knifeblade. A little more experience had taught me to recognize an expanding flake when I saw one and put in a pin thicker than it appears to take. The pin went in all the way to the eye, but also popped off the edge of the pod-shaped hole that Mike had tried to copperhead. Expando for sure. Ten feet to my left, a bodyweight Zamac was my saviour from the big ride. A second Lost Arrow went in. My daisy chain clipped in short in case the flake expanded and dropped the piece I was on, hopefully the pin I was nailing would catch me. I stopped pounding the third Arrow when I felt the pin I was on shift. Very scary. After transferring onto it, the Zamac looked close enough to grab, but it was still 4 feet away from my outstretched arm. I would have given half my rack for a cheater stick at that point, or all of it for not having to place that final Lost Arrow in the expanding flake.

A brief rush of adrenaline and I was clipping the Zamac rivet. A loud sigh of relief escaped my lips as I hung there for a second, thankful that the roulette wheel had stopped spinning. Or had it? After the Zamac I was on, was a second just like it. Totally bodyweight. Hardware store specials. 100% worthless in any fall.
But it wasn't the Zamac that scared me. It was a dinner plate sized flake that was as thin as a slice of bread that had to be hooked. The flake creaked and groaned as it flexed under my tentatively placed weight. If this thing blew I was going to rip everything back to the rivet below the expando flake that had caught Coomer or all the way to the pin that had stopped Mike. From the relative safety of the Zamac, I prepared another rivet hanger and clipped my right aider to it for speedy placement. I spent perhaps a second on the flake using all my balancy slab climbing skills, before I was clipped into the next bunk rivet, I was safe...well, somewhat.

The pitch continued up a thin ramp littered with Zamacs to a flake with fixed heads. Clipping up the heads I realized that nothing on this pitch except what was below the expanding flake that I had nailed would stop any fall. Thankfully I didn't have to find out and clipped the anchor.

Upon arrival, I noticed that in the switchover confusion, I had forgotten to grab Mike's cordellette and locking biners for the belay. The few runners and free biners I had would have to make due for the belay.

The bags arrived a bit before Mike even left the belay. I figured he was still rattled from his flight time, so I decided to be patient. It was around 6 p.m. but I was determined to get another pitch in before we quit for the day. When Mike arrived, the switch went quickly and I was back on the sharp end.

Pitch 8 was also rated A3 on our topo. Odd since the lying thing said absolutely nothing about the expanding flake. Also odd because it's one tenuous knifeblade placement above bomber gear. Many fixed heads and more Zamacs took me to a traversing A1 horizontal crack under an overlap and then up a flaring, JTree like crack to the belay.

The anchor took me awhile to build, not just because I was exhausted from leading 3 pitches that day, but also because it consisted of three fixed angles and a newish-looking 3/8" Rawl bolt. I backed it all up with a cam and some slings tied into another fixed pin on the next pitch. Soon the bags and Mike were up and we were settled into our groove. Vicodins once again knocked me out and I'm sure helped Mike not to have any nightmares about the day.

The sun once again came up with a vengence. The entire climb had been brutally hot. We were limiting our water to 3 liters per person per day, or at least trying to do so. I wanted some water for the descent, but it was painful to deny such a strong urge to drink.

Our last day on the wall is a bit of a blur as we joined the "Prow" just above the "Strange Dihedral." A mixture of six fairly easy and generally boring pitches led us to the summit, topping out with Half Dome on fire.

Now as I sit, back in my office, the fever has subsided. But I don't know that it will ever break, or go away. At least not for awhile. My desire to continue to push myself on aid lines is pretty strong. I need to go back and finish "Native Son." The "Sea of Dreams" is also calling my name. Who knows, maybe Baffin Island one day.

I can dream can't I?

Rex Pieper kickin' it at Tapir Terrace

Mike's on Pitch 10 headed for the top!

Rack as of 8/99

3 KBs
6 LAs (2 ea. 1-2, 1 ea. 3, 5)
1 ea. 1/2" - 5/8"
1 ea. standard sawn off
2 ea. Black - Blue Alien
3 ea. Green Alien
4-5 ea. Yellow Alien
3 ea. Red Alien
1 ea. Hybrid Aliens are nice.
2 ea. Camalot Jr's to #3
1 ea. Camalot #4
3 sets HB Brass Offsets
2 sets HB Aluminum Offsets
1 set medium Stoppers.
10 Heads (mostly #2 -#4)
5 Circleheads (mostly #3-#4)
15 Rivet Hangers (including #1's)
1 Cliffhanger
2 bathooks or Rivet Kit in case Zamacs blow in a fall
1 ea. Leeper Cam Hooks (wide/narrow)

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