We woke up around 4:20 again, completed the ritual of coffee, eating, and pooping, and made our way into The Valley in the dark. Funny thing about climbing the Washington Column, one parks his car in the parking lot for the upscale Ahwahnee hotel; it’s an atrocity if you ask me, that there is a luxurious hotel in a National Park dedicated to preserving a natural environment. I say tear it down, and build more campsites and housing for the park employees, who for the most part live in small, uncomfortable quarters. Regardless, it felt strange as we parked the Freedom Mobile next to all the nice BMWs, Hummers, and other vehicles for rich folk, pulled the haulbag out of the car and started hiking up to the wall.
As we were getting our gear together we noticed another duo doing exactly what we were doing. Since the South Face (5.8 C1) is so popular we figured they were getting on the same route we were. We weren’t exactly psyched on the prospect of getting stuck behind another party so we tried to get our act together and started hiking to the wall. I led us astray at one point, hiking past the trailhead that heads up to the Washington Column, but luckily we got to the base of the route just before the other party, again, possibility for tension as they arrived just five minutes after we had. The first thing they said was, “I hope you boys are ready to party on the ledge. We got some whiskey,” and both Gene and I were relieved they weren’t going to be impatient with us.
The South Face of the Washington Column is a genius route to get acclimated on the rituals and mechanisms of big wall climbing, provided it’s not a traffic jam with too many climbers. One can climb the wall with only hauling the bag for three pitches up to Dinner Ledge, leaving them there after spending the night on the ledge, climbing to the top of the wall, and then rappelling back to the bag, much lighter after two days, and finally rappelling with the bag back to the ground.
We fought and struggled with the haul bag for three pitches, maybe four hundred feet or so, cursing and sweating, till we finally reached Dinner Ledge, a urine smelling, but glorious place to be. We basically collapsed on the ledge for a while, laying out our sleeping territory, taking our stove and food out of the haul bag and all the other little comforts we had to set ourselves up to enjoy a night on the wall.
Our new friends, Ben and Patrick, progressed below us at about the same pace we did, and we exchanged friendly remarks to one another as they came up to the ledge. They were able to find their own little perch to sleep on, just five feet higher and thirty or so feet adjacent to our own little camp.
After resting for a bit, we did another couple pitches. I led, as we were doing the climbing in blocks, and on the second pitch I started to feel comfortable in the environment. I’d been here before. Half Dome, to the east, stood proudly, looking over us and seeming to give us its blessing. The aid climbing movement, stepping in our ladder-like sling aiders, much different than the progress of free climbing, using only one’s hands and feet, finally felt right and efficient. On the last pitch of the day, I was finally feeling a flow on the golden granite wall. I moved quickly, and Gene made positive remarks about my progress, which made me feel good. There was a small, easy pendulum, which I completed, gently swinging over, and I felt like a child lost in play. I clipped into the anchors and set the ropes up for Gene, while Half Dome sat there in the shade, trickling waterfalls loomed in the distance and birds circled us.
When Gene reached my point of the pendulum, he would have to do a lower-out, as I did on El Cap. I walked him through it, trying to remember how it went. He looked as I must have felt two days ago, fumbling with the ropes, convincing himself that he was doing the right thing.
“Are you sure, this is how it goes?” he said.
“I think so, yes, I mean it is.”
He finally figured it out, and we rappelled down to the ledge, leaving the rope fixed so that we could jumar up it in the morning.
We got comfortable on our bivy ledge, and it was one of the most glorious evenings of my life. I’d stayed at this ledge once previously on a failed attempt of the route, and that night I never quite felt calm and at ease. For whatever reason this night was different. We stared at Half Dome, as it finally got some of the days last rays of sun: gray granite with black water streaks and hints of orange. I had the feeling I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Gene and I were proud, and we were on the heels of success. All we had above us was climbing, and we didn’t have to worry about the pains of hauling.
The simple Indian food out of a Tasty Bites package tasted like the best meal of my life. The one and a half beers we had were savored in small sips. (We lost half of one beer as the can had punctured, slowly leaking out in to the haulbag.) We had two small speakers and a tiny iPod, and the music gently serenaded us with the high vibes and spirits of the vertical world.
I thought of the past, I thought of the climber who was killed on this very same ledge, by rock fall dislodged from another party high up on the route, on pitches not recommended to do by the guide because another party is almost always below you on this route. I thought of his partner, and his family, and how the incident affected them. Across from us on the 2,000 foot granite slab named Glacier Point, a young climber named Peter Terbush, from Gunnison, had been killed by rock fall. So much reminder of death, yet we felt safe, peaceful, content, alive, so psyched. I wondered what happened to their spirits, where they existed now.
I thought of my last bivy, unplanned and without sleeping gear on the Painted Wall, in the Black Canyon, a sleepless night huddled next to my companion, shivering, just waiting for the endless night to be over. Perhaps that was why this bivy felt so good, so right, remembering the one that was full of dread and cold.
I thought of Layton Kor, the prolific climber of the 1960s who had established this route, as well as the Black Canyon route I suffered on in the unplanned bivy. I read in the guidebook that he and his partner, Chris Fredericks, didn’t get to stay on this ledge and rather pressed on for higher terrain eventually spending a sleepless night hanging in slings. I thought about how drive and passion for climbing can sometimes make one overlook the gentler, simpler fruits of life.
Most of all I thought how lucky I was to be up there with Gene. We were in synch, and comfortable with one another in the vertical. He wanted this as badly as I did, and we were getting along famously. The boys came down and partied with us, as they promised. They were high on the vertical world too, and we made obscene jokes as guys do without women around, and laughed as if we were old friends. Finally it was time to sleep and we drifted off with the cosmos. I was warm in my sleeping bag, and could only fall to sleep after I tied in with the rope.
We woke up with the rays of the sun, forced down oatmeal and coffee, and pooped as one poops on a wall, first into a plastic bag, then stuffing the bag into the three foot long PVC pipe, called a poop tube. Immediately Gene started jumaring up the rope we’d fixed the previous afternoon, and I followed right up after him. Finally, I had a flow to my jumar techniques, and really felt good about how efficiently I was moving. We wanted to move quickly that day, both because success would be a big boost for our spirits, and because we wanted our new friends to be successful as well.
As Gene started leading up a small, thin crack we heard voices below, and it was Scott, with one of his friends climbing up to the Thanksgiving ledge. They were planning on a day climb of Southern Man, a harder route, within spitting distance of ours. It was incredible to watch their pace as I split my time of keeping an eye on Gene as he led, and peering down as they raced up the wall. Gene fiddled above with nuts and cams, sliding them into the crack, as Scott did the same. They quickly reached our level, close enough that we could talk as I picked Scott’s brain about aid climbing questions, and we made obscene jokes and shouted loudly and just generally hooted and hollered, buzzed on life in the vertical.
Clouds began forming, some grayness looming in the background, but no thunder or lightning. We had a good chance to get up this wall.
Scott’s big wall climbing technique and demeanor is unique. He was talking to himself, singing a version of some reggae song to himself, and yelling at his partner the whole time, inching tiny stoppers and cam hooks in the cracks. “Oh God, this is sketchy,” he said, all while having a smile on his face. A master at work.
Gene kept leading as I followed and cleaned. Our new friends below were progressing nicely, and all was well on the wall. Once they reached the belay where I was it would usually be time for me to set off and clean the pitch. Finally, we finished the aid climbing section, and it was time for a few pitches of free climbing, our element. We ditched a bag with the aid climbing equipment at a belay, and I set off leading. The clouds were getting worse, and the wind was picking up. I tried to climb as fast as possible, while not trying to climb too fast and make a silly mistake, like a fall, that would slow us down. As I climbed I felt so determined to get up the thing; this climb would define our trip.
At the second to last pitch, there was a point where there was an intimidating, off-width-squeeze chimney above, the one Layton Kor had surely led on the first ascent. To the right was another option, an ugly awkward seam that had been hammered with pitons. In our home multi-pitch area, the Black Canyon, that would have been unacceptable to hammer an easier option just fifteen feet over from the true, proud line. But, every area has its own practices, and I opted for the quicker mode of climbing, the easier, quicker seam. I did make a mental note, to return to take the more proud line. A great thing about climbing, those rocks will always be there.
Gene led the last pitch, with a funky, fun move over a small roof, and I followed up. We’d climbed the route. We shook hands, and it was anticlimactic, of course. Clouds and winds increased, and we knew we just had to get off this damn thing, and we rigged a rappel. The wind blew our ropes all over the place, and rappelling was a mixture of prayers and experience, just hoping they would not get stuck, which could cause all types of problems.
We rappelled past Ben as he was leading up. He was struggling in a chimney section, and I remembered how he said the night before that he hated chimneys. I kept rappelling and noticed an anchor just to the right of where Patrick was belaying from, but didn’t give much of a thought to its purpose and clipped into the bolts at Patrick’s belay. Gene did the same, and we pulled the rope, hoping not to hit Ben. It was a bit of a clusterfuck. As we pulled the rope it got stuck, we tugged some more and it was indeed not going anywhere. We frantically yelled to Ben, “Can you see where it’s stuck.”
“Let me see what I can do,” Ben said. “Oh, shit I can’t move.”
Our rope had wrapped around him and his gear, and he could not climb up. He had to rappel down. We felt so bad. Patrick had finally lost most of his patience with us, but was still polite. What a guy! They wanted redemption and success on this wall, just as we did. Ben finally fixed everything, and as he did so, I realized the adjacent set of anchors were for rappelling, and set where they were so that the rope would not get stuck in the chimney above. Another lesson learned, but at the expense of our new friends, damn. I wondered if we would have had the same patience with them if the roles had been reversed.
We kept rappelling and the winds kept getting more and more intense as we came down. When we tossed the ropes they went completely sideways, horizontal, and we just prayed they would not get stuck. Luckily they didn’t. We finally reached the Dinner Ledge, gathering up our gear, and quickly headed down three more rappels, finally reaching the ground. Success! But, I couldn’t help but feel bad as we looked up at the wall as Ben and Patrick were rappelling down. We could see their headlamps. Not only did they not reach the top, but also they had to rappel in the wind, in the dark.
We made it back to the Freedom Mobile, never hard to find in a parking lot, especially one with nice, shiny cars. We bee-lined it straight to the grocery store and bought beers to celebrate, meeting Scott back at the Green House for a humble dinner of pasta.
Luke Mehall is the publisher at Benighted Publications, and the author of two books, Climbing Out of Bed and The Great American Dirtbags. To learn more about The Great American Dirtbags and read this piece in its entirety visit The Climbing Zine.