Unbelayvable: Six Liters and a Dream

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Royal Arches, South Dome, and Washington Column in Yosemite National Park, California. Washington Column, seen to the right, is a popular first big wall.

Royal Arches, South Dome, and Washington Column in Yosemite National Park, California. Washington Column, seen to the right, is a popular first big wall.

It was my partner and I's first big wall. We decided to go for the South Face (5.8 C1) of Washington Column in Yosemite. Neither of us had really aid climbed before. Or even climbed a lot of multipitch. I prepared for the trip by reading the “Aid/Big Wall” chapter in Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills on the plane ride over.

For the estimated 2-3 day climb we brought 6 liters of water. Needless to say, we got super behind schedule and dehydrated. The orange peels I bootied from one belay ledge did not hydrate me or help with the situation at all. We ended up climbing in the dark. I was belaying from a ledge high up on the wall at 2 a.m. when my partner called "off belay" from above. I was so out of it that I responded by untying myself from the rope. Then I just stood there. I eventually came to and tied back in. I'd later whip on my jugs while cleaning the pitch. We did top out. Ironically, untying on the ledge was one of the most confident moves I made the whole time I was up there. 

—Cole O., via email

Lesson:

Congratulations on climbing your first big wall. Most people bail off their first attempt. You're ahead of the curve. Leave out all of the details if you're trying to impress people around the campfire. Your story is: "I skimmed Freedom of the Hills on my flight. We topped out." That sounds impressive.

Big walls should be approached with respect. They're not really something to figure out on the fly (flight?). I'm sure it's obvious to you in hindsight, but you're lucky things didn't go any worse with your blatant lack of preparation.

How to Big Wall Climb by Chris McNamara lays out a curriculum for building competency before attempting your first wall. The first drill is to aid low angle terrain 25 times over two days, focusing on different things throughout.  There are many, many drills after that. Whether or not you follow the exact plan in that book, you should take at least some time to practice wall skills before your first attempt.

Had you prepared, you would've brought more water. "Conservatively, we need a gallon per person, per day when wall climbing," McNamara writes. With that formula, you should've brought four gallons for two days on the wall, which is about 15 liters. (That's if you knew you were only going to be on the wall for two days.) You were 9 liters short. McNamara later writes, "If you run out of water, especially high on the route in the afternoon sun, you will hate life. Anyone that runs out of water knows that everything moves much slower."

Sound familiar?

You were moving slow because you hadn't practiced, which caused you to climb late into the night. You were tired. You were dehydrated, which made things worse. And that's how you end up in a delirious state untying yourself from the rope in the middle of a big wall.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of found orange peels.

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