Monday, July 19, 2010

Westie Face

May 2010- A long streak of white crap runs from above the door frame down towards the handle. I used the sleeve of my dirty hoodie to open the car door, letting out a short string of obscenities. Some may say it was Karma- I'd been parked at the fifteen minute registration parking for the Yosemite Lodge for the better part of an hour. I would say it was shit. Long white shit on my car. Yosemite was just a ditch and I was over it.

I had already given up. I lowered myself out to jumar the rope on the first overhanging pitch. I didn't really think I would send the West Face of the Leaning Tower. The free climbing begins at a small stance 600 feet off the ground at a small stance and above a 200 foot bolt ladder. I had tried the crux pitch four times a few days prior and wanted to go on this mission with Alex to retrieve my fixed line. I didn't want the pressure of sending. I would try once more since I was up here.

My feet pasted against the wall and I ratcheted up to a small pin scar. A thousand feet swam below me. I moved up the vertical granite wall. The 12b warm up felt nothing like a warm up. Soon, the outside edge of my foot pressed onto a small foothold, I climbed the crux above a copperhead. I climbed smoothly to the belay and set up the top rope for Alex.

The West Face of the Leaning Tower

I racked up, and fired up the pumpy beginning. I hung the draw at the crux, grabbed the bad pinch, crimped the hold, and dead pointed- throwing my body to hit a flat edge. I stuck it. I made a few more moves. Two feet away from me was the no-hands rest. I hung off my right hand unable to move any farther. I had completed the hardest move on the route. Then I fell. Total disappointment. Alex finished the pitch to Awhanee, then coercing me to follow him up the much more difficult Wet Lycra Nightmare, Todd Skinner’s 5.13d free variation to Wet Denim Daydream. Alex assured me this was the type of thing that built character and would make me a better climber. I didn’t believe him.

That night, I stopped by the lodge to sedate myself with a philly cheese steak and onion rings. I felt fat and disgusting as I sopped up the last bit of Sysco cheese with a greasy onion ring. When I came out, there was the bird shit on my car. I was over the valley. The last straw. I wanted to puke. I wanted to leave. I wanted to puke then leave. Yosemite was just a big cavern. Who wanted to be in that ditch?

May 2009- Stanley climbed behind a white curtain. He clipped a fixed copperhead, a swaged piece of bubble gum attached to the rock, and threw his heel on the rock as he traverse out. The white sheet of snow fell ten feet away from the rock, leaving Stanley dry. Snows falls all around the Leaning Tower but it’s steep nature kept the rock dry, and allowed us to keep climbing. The site is inspiring.
A week later, the snow dried, and Stanley screamed. “Why can’t I do this?” He had just fallen off the crux move on the second pitch of the Leaning Tower. I waited until he calmed down. The effort of our previous weeks of work pressed him. It’s just a pitch. It’s just a rock climb. It’s just another huge formation in the Valley. That’s what we should believe, but it easily becomes more- it becomes a part of our fragile egos as men. The need to succeed, to have the swagger that comes with success, is part of the climb.

A year later, that would be me. I related to Stanley’s frustration, to put so much effort, to fall in the middle of a wall, to know something was possible for you but still fail. I wanted to slam my head against the wall. I felt worn down by the falling, the toiling on the wall, and the pressing desire to finish the project.

May- 2009 I am dogging the pitches in a two day ascent with John Schmid. My foot pastes on the wall. I stare at the anchors, smear my foot, and start to move. Then I’m falling. The tiny brass nut fifteen feet below rips out of the wall. It swings down the rope as my fall is arrested by a cluster of small cams. Mikey had warned me not fall on the top of the 12a R pitch. I was going for it and flew forty-five feet across the wall. This experience is unrivaled excitement. I hate the failure but it solidifies my desire to succeed. I want to return.

Summer 2001- My stomache cramps into a tight ball. I heave twice, then puke a thin fluid. I wipe my mouth and continue climbing. I was not sure if Thane had put his head through the neck of his shirt or if he’d stuck his moppy head through one of the other enormous holes in the thin cotton. From behind the counter of the Yosemite climbing shop, I talked a mean game. Wall climbing? No problem. I grabbed a cam off the wall and pulled the trigger. Easy stuff.

My first wall route- just before I started puking.

A few days later, a party of three rappeled past us, bailing off the West Face of the Leaning Tower. They tell us there is a ton of water at the ledge. Thane decides we should dump our water so we don’t have to haul it to the midway ledge. When we arrive, we realize the party had vastly overestimated the amount of water. I lead the next two pitches. It is hot. I am dehydrated. I puke leading the boulder ladder pitch. Thane yells at me for not clipping enough bolts on the ladder or maybe clippin too many. We spend the night on Awhanee This is my first real wall route. I pour a little water into my mouth and swallow too fast. I puke again.. “Stop throwing up, you’re wasting water,” Thane says. In the morning, we summit. I never climb with Thane again. Wall climbing is suffering. I need to find something better. Wall climbing is not where it’s at.

May 2008- Mikey and I let our feet hang a thousand feet off the ground. We kick our heels off the ledge a pitch from the summit of Leaning Tower. Mikey just dispatched the strenuous and steep roof pitch and wanted to rest before tackling the final 5.12. We talk about nothing in particular. We just kick our heels. This is where it's at.

Fall 2002- I am a fat 21 year old working for the North Face store in San Francisco. I cooerce Rob Miller into taking me on one of his free climbing adventures. I just want to be in the Valley, to see what big wall free climbing is like.

We hike up the Gunsight gully, the steep trail between Lower and Middle Cathedral, heading towards the top of Bridalveil falls, and the summit of Leaning Twer. A hundred feet away from the top of the waterfall, we cross the raging river. The rock is slick. The water is running fast. Horrified, I step into the cold and try not to think about falling in, heading down the falls, and drowning- being pummeled into the talus below and sprayed with 10,000 psi of Sierra run-off. This is one of the scariest moments in my life.

Rob traverses out the last pitch to the belay, where I sit and marvel at the thought of him free climbing so high off the ground. Watching him climb breaks a mental barrier for me. Big wall free climbing can be done. The rappelling into the top, the river crossing, these things are part of the process- part of the colossal amount of work involved in big wall free climbing. The granite softens under Rob’s touch, allowing him to move smoothily along the golden rock of the tower. Someday I tell myself. Someday that will be me.

Jumaring the first 200 foot bolt ladder

June 2010. Lucho told me how nervous he was before he sent the Teflon Corner- the crux pitch to freeing El Capitan. He offered solid advice about breathing, relaxing, and performing. We arrived in the parking lot at 6 am. No one is on the route. We enjoy the solitude of the wall, simul-climbing up the bolt ladder, and then free climbing the route from the stance. I fell on the second pitch, and lower back to the belay to try again. I was nervous. A few minutes later, after hanging with Lucho, I am poised at the crux, this time I send. I continue up the route, climbing without falling again. I stop for a moment on the summit. I want to revel, to rest on my laurels. To recall the experiences, the beauty of the climbing and the spot, the toiling and the friendship, all of it. Then I look at El Cap. My feelings of success and nostalgia are quickly washed away by my desire for more.

El Cap

Below are a couple notes from Leo Houlding who made the first free ascent of the Westie Face.

The West Face of the Leaning Tower
by Leo Houlding

The West face of the Leaning Tower was first climbed by Warren Harding, Glen Denny and Al Macdonald in 1961.

In characteristic style he drilled over 50 bolts through the initial ridiculously steep, “impossible” wall to where an obvious discontinuous line of grooves leads to another 30 bolt ladder, through a large roof to the top.

Leo on the 5.12b pitch off Guano Ledge

Royal Robbins made the second ascent and first ever solo ascent of a big wall dubbing the Tower “ The most overhanging face in North America”. Comparable in angle to Kilnsey North buttress but a thousand feet high and flanked by the mighty Bridalveil Falls the tower is an incredible feature.

The route starts three hundred feet up at the end of a narrow ledge traverse. Halfway up is the Ahwahnee ledge, a luxurious 4/5 person en-suit bivi equipped with in-situ fixed lines (named after the five star hotel in the valley).
Harding’s rusty, old bolts where replaced in 1997 by the American safe climbing association, good work boys. This, combined with it’s tactical ease and comparatively short length make the West Face one of the most popular beginner walls in the valley although the extreme initial exposure overwhelms many would be ascensionists.

The usual style is a two or three day ascent with a night at the base and a night on Ahwahnee.

I first climbed the route in a five and a half hour push with Jason Pickles and Ammon Mcneely in October 2000.

The initial bolt ladder would clearly never go (so prove me wrong!) but the rest of the route appeared to be climbable, including a variation avoiding the upper bolt ladder. It looked outstanding, each pitch completely different to the last but at a fairly consistent standard and all incredibly steep.

From the top of the first pitch bolt ladder, a long, steep, shallow groove offered technical pumpy climbing for a hundred and fifty feet to a nasty boulder problem finish on to the Ahwahnee.

Then a unique ramp feature splits the bulging blank face out right to the start of the next bolt ladder. A vegetated seam runs parallel to the bolt ladder and joins it at its end where crack systems continue.

Perhaps Harding drilled past this obvious line to avoid the large concerningly hollow blocks it is necessary to negotiate on the low traverse to the vegetated seam? From the artificial belay (no hands-off rest) at the top of the bolt ladder a fun pitch teasingly graded 5.10+ on the aid topo goes at around 5.11+!

The deceptive roof comes next. A slab below disguises the scale of the ceiling but when one pulls the crux into the back of the cave its size is blatant. Beyond it’s distant lip yet more juggy steepness terminates on a comfortable recovery ledge, a wild pitch.

A final typically overhung corner followed by a traverse top out makes this yet pitch another exciting jummar for the third man!

The traverse top out marks the end of the climbing but is not the true ‘top out’. From the lovely ‘chill out’ finish ledge a scramble above the abyss heads to the knife-edge ridge summit of the tower. Huge slabs of rock overhang the face, guarding the summit except for one small gap. Upon mantling through this window one is confronted with a breath taking view of El Cap in it’s entirety. The spell binding hanging valley above Bridalveil falls and the cluster of domes that is the Cathedrals makes this perhaps the most spectacular top out in the world.

At the beginning of May 2001 Jason and I found ourselves back on the Leaning Tower with a friend Javier Sepulveda. He is a competent climber but not an experienced wall rat. Jas and I have spent a while hanging around on ledges in high places and, as with anything, one can become complacent. Jav’s intermittent sighs of contentment or yells of

“This is BRILLIANT” reminded us of the majesty of our playground. His terrified cries as he repeatedly ‘took the ride’ on free hanging jummars caused Jas and I endless amusement.

We were in no rush so we set up a comfortable Camp on the Ahwahnee from which to prepare the route for a one day free ascent. I spent an afternoon working the pitch leading to the ledge on abseil, carefully chalking the holds and deciphering the sequences. That evening, to my great annoyance, I fell off the last move of the ramp pitch on my onsight attempt.

The next day Jas aided the upper bolt ladder and linked it into the next pitch. I spent a while on top rope cleaning the seam parallel to the bolt ladder and checking out the gear. The climbing was hard E5 but two ropes would be necessary for protection. At 59.5m a truly long pitch.

To spice things up a bit we got Jav to lead the roof pitch. Not being an aid climber, it took him ages. As his frustration grew our entertainment improved. Darkness was fast engulfing and with one pitch to go along with the harrowing descent there was no time to work the final pitches. We stepped up the pace a little. Jav seemed quite startled by the gear change. We topped out convinced we could free it in a day.

Jav had to leave for work so it was just Jas and I who returned. We jugged to the Ahwahnee and spent the rest of the day wiring the pitch below and the ramp above. Next morning after providing our guests with fresh coffee and breakfast we went up to prepare the next pitch. With the intention of returning for lunch we hauled up the line fixed down from the ledge and fixed it to the top of the ramp, leaving the camp in a ‘lived in state’ complete with unpacked sleeping bags and our trainers.
In no time at all we were below the roof with all the climbing to that point thoroughly dialled. It seamed pointless to descend so early so we continued to the top. The roof went at E6 and the final pitch a stern E5.

Topping out again we knew the descent was going to be tough. To save our precious climbing boots we descended the wall, hiked to the road (a considerable walk) and hitched back to camp 4… barefoot!
Now we were ready for the push.

On Wednesday 16th May we set off from camp 4. I led every pitch with no falls. Jas followed everything with a couple of rests.

Once again we topped out. This time the elusive Peregrines that we had heard calling but had not seen swooped by to congratulate us.

Intent on returning for photographs we left our gear on the ledge and our fixed ropes in place.

A week slipped by on the valley floor with all our sleeping and cooking gear conveniently stashed halfway up the tower.

Eventually we returned with Corey Rich to make some glamour shots. In the burnt out light of the midday we retired to Ahwahnee to kill sometime before the enchanting light of evening.

Stove and cigarettes dying to be ignited we despaired at our stupidity. Little irritates me more than having no light (except perhaps no skins). We killed the time trying to create fire using various Boy Scout methods. I was absolutely convinced that Corey’s big lens was going to work but alas success was not ours.

By the final red rays of the setting sun I began to pull the ropes on the last abseil and so end our affair with the Leaning Tower. Or so I thought, the ropes jammed. Unwilling to jummar off a kink we ditched the rope and halved our descent loads intent on returning the next day.

Jas’s trip was almost over so we put off rescuing the gear in favour of bagging some more classics. Finally the day of Jason’s bus we went up to get the gear.

Originally a 'throw away' comment the idea we might be able to aid climb the route in under two hours grew on me. Jas was keen so instead of simply freeing the stuck rope from the top of the first pitch we decided to do the whole route.

One hour fifty nine minutes latter we enjoyed the stunning top out once again. Hurriedly we descended and hitched back to camp in time for Jas to pack and catch his bus at Four O’clock.

The next day was my second to last in Yosemite. Hanging in the parking lot, the Pickles gone, the forecast said tomorrow would be 97 degrees and humid. I was not going to get to climb the Captain this trip, was I?

Singer had talked of an ascent of the Nose leaving the parking lot at noon, without taking head torches.

I raised this point, it was 10.15. His eyes sparkled and he put on a pink, sleeveless Lycra top. I could tell he was excited. We began guzzling Red Bull. We started climbing at 12.40.

On the third pitch (of 33) I pulled up all the rope (over 100 feet) fixed it to the belay and set off soloing up a slight ramp. Confronted by a difficult move 10’ higher I stuffed in a piece and pulled on it to reach up.
PING! It rang.

I let out the kind of cry one is only capable of making when one is genuinely convinced that one has really blown it. My visions of a 100’ factor 2 fall were narrowly avoided by my feline falling instinct. Clawing down the slab I managed to grind down the ramp and stick the four inch wide belay ledge. Hair raising. In our fifth hour we passed a party who were on their fifth day!

Using the speed techniques of short fixing, back cleaning and simo-climbing we topped out at 7.42 and made it down just before dark. A brilliant day to end a brilliant Spring in the Valley.

The Westie Face (W. Face of the Leaning Tower)
E7 A0, 6c, 6b, 6b, 6c, 6b - 800 feet
V – A0, 5.13b, 12b, 12c, 12d, 13a, 12c
FA: Warren Harding, Glen Denny, Al Macdonald 1961
FFA: Leo Houlding, Jason Pickles 16th May 2001
Speed record: 1.59 Leo Houlding, Jason Pickles 21st May 2001


The first free ascent of the West face of the Leaning tower by Leo Houlding and Jason Pickles

On Wednesday 16th May 2001 Jason Pickles and I made the first free ascent of the West Face of the Leaning tower. First climbed by Warren Harding in 1953 with a heavy use of bolts, Royal Robbins called the Tower "the steepest wall in North America".
Comparable in angle to Kilnsey North Buttress but a thousand feet high … you get the picture!

Harding’s rusty bolts were replaced by the American safe climbing association in 1997, good work boys.

The initial insanely steep bolt ladder remains an aid pitch and will never go free (so prove me wrong). The free climbing begins where the bolt ladder ends at a small ledge in a shallow, steep groove. The crux pitch a 160 foot, 5.13b (E7 6c) leads one on to the Ahwahnee ledge. A five star perch named after the exclusive Hotel in the Valley.

An unusual hanging ramp pitch then a full sixty metre stamina fest, both around 5.12c bring you to the big roof. It’s size is deceptive but whenyou pull into the back of it it’s scale is clear. About twenty feet of horizontal laybacking then another twenty feet of bridging up a forty five degree overhanging groove. Every hold a jug, the it’s a wild pitch. Extremly exposed E6 6c(5.13a).

A final typically steep corner completes the outstanding, sustained route. The increadible view of El Cap from obtained the summit makes the final mantle perhaps the most spectacular topout in the world.

Achievable in a day and of a semi-sport nature this route is set to become a classic of its grade.

Several days later we made the fastest aid ascent of the same route whilst retrieving a jammed rope. 1 hour 59 minutes sheds a considerable 1.20 off the previous speed record. The same afternoon Jason caught his bus out of the Valley.
The next afternoon Jason Singer and I climbed the Nose of El Capitan. Leaving the café at 12 noon, without head torches we began climbing at 12.40. On the third pitch I narrowly avoided a monster fall by catching a tiny ledge 10 feet into the 120 foot screamer! Not the best way to start a speed ascent. In our fifth hour we passed a party who was on their fifth day. Topping out at 7.42 we made it down just before dark.

Westie Face Beta
The majority of this route stays dry in a snowstorm. All of the free moves to the beginning of the free climbing have gone free but the pitch itself has not gone yet.

Lynn Hill and Katie Brown on their free ascent

Westie Face Beta

The first 200 are a bolt ladder than comes the free climbing

1st pitch rack- 5.12b- pitons were removed by Dean Potter, making this pitch easier than initially thought.
#1 Camalot
Yellow Alien in undercling
Stopper in finger lock
Copper head
Small stopper or green alien
Fixed heads- anchor

2nd pitch 5.12d/5.13a
Green alien
Orange alien
Bolts x 7 or 8 there are two possible finishes to this pitch. A scrunchy V4 boulder problem can be made following the bolt ladder or the third bolt on the belay can be clipped and then a few down climbing moves to a 5.11a variations to the far left- this will take you to Awhanee ledge, where the boulder problem takes you to Guano ledge

3rd pitch 5.12b
Bolt with runner
Green alien with runner place in arching crac kdown climb to an edge far out left/jump or span.
.5 camalot with runner make delicate moves straight up face to traverse ramp
Yellow alien
Draws x 4 or 5
.75 camalot

4th pitch 5.12a R
Bolts x 6
Traverse left below the third bolt. Thin gear, pin, fixed tag line….many ascents either fix their tag line and clip that or pre=place a stopper. I’ve fallen going to the anchor- it is a long albeit clean fall.

5th pitch 5.11d
Single set to two camalots, doubles to .5, lots of draws, maybe stoppers. After this pitch climb a short pitch to the base of the roof, climbing across the keystoned blocks.

6th- 11b pitch
Thin gear/ stoppers to bolts, yellow alien
this pitch can be linked into the roof or a belay can be made at two bolts, below the boulder problem that goes into the rood. This belay reduces rope drag

7th pitch 5.12c
10 draws red camalot optional

8th pitch- 5.12a
Gold camalot, draws, small cams, .75 camalot.

The last pitch is 30m and can be rappelled. The roof pitch needs either the tag line to be fixed to the bottom anchor or directionals to be placed on rappel, then the second pulled into the anchor. The next pitch is straight down one or two pieces should be used as a directional. The next rappel from chains takes you to guano ledge. A tension traverse needs to be done to swing to the belay. The next rappel is 60 m to the top of the bolt ladder. The bolt ladder can be rappelled- one person must place around 10 quickdraws, clipping the bolts to stay into the wall.

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