Big wall climbing is the culmination of all of the climbing skills I’ve been honing over the last 5 years.
It takes technical skills, mental toughness, physical endurance, and good communication with a partner. I borrowed gear from friends, grilled them on the terrain, looked over maps that climbers before me had drawn, and scrolled through comments people had left on the mountain project to try and prepare myself mentally and emotionally for the hardest thing I had attempted to date in climbing.
A few days earlier my climbing partner Mike and I had decided, somewhat casually, that we wanted to climb a big wall, never mind never having done one before and having less than a week of outdoor aid leading experience between the two of us.
Surrounded by friends who had completed our objective before us, the West Face of Leaning Tower, I felt confident in our ability to get to the top of the formation. A 1,000 foot tower that, true to it’s name sake, leans quite severally.
“You guys know how to place cams, you are going to be fine. You’ll just figure it out.” My friend Alex reassured us over dinner a few nights before. He had climbed the Leaning Tower in a similar fashion the season before and had listed it as a great climb to start learning on. The overhanging terrain made it easy to haul and if you fell there was no risk in hitting anything.
And he was right, we do know how to place cams. (small metal devices that wedge into rock to keep you from falling, also the main method for achieving upward progress when aid climbing)
But talk is cheap, and as I stood at the base of the massive blank rock face looking up, I couldn’t help feeling like I was getting in way over my head. The audacity of assuming I could make it up, that anyone could make it up, this feature made me feel self conscious of my previous bravado and casual ‘no big deal’ attitude towards aid climbing.
There is always fear before a climb. Like a small bird fluttering in my ribcage, beating its wings against my lungs and making me open and close my sweaty palms in anticipation.
To start this climb you have to walk/scramble along a ‘catwalk’ like sidewalk that puts you about 300 feet above the ground before you even start the route. We had finished with the strenuous work of getting our massive haul bag (a giant cylindrical bag that holds everything from water and food to sleeping pads and extra underwear) to the base of the climb and we were now about to start up on the actual climbing.
I stood at the belay, looking up at my partner Mike as he started leading the first pitch. It was a bolt ladder with one roof move that looked like it wasn’t going to be too difficult, plus he’s a good bit taller than I am so we felt confident he would be getting through this section easily.
I had almost an hour to myself, high above the trees, listening to the swifts cheeping as they darted through the air like tiny blades through the wind. I watched them dart impossibly fast through the air, coming together and breaking apart in a dance or a battle I couldn't tell.
The breeze is warm, and smells like pine trees and every once in a while I catch the scent of campfire smoke from campers in the valley below. The trees sway gently in the distance, alternatively electric green and a deep dusty emerald.
It occurs to me that the prevalence of men in their 40’s and 50’s getting together for aid climbing trips is a lot like how I imagine older men get together to go golfing, or fishing. You spend a lot of time outside, sitting still in nature, enjoying the view, and every once in a while something very exciting happens.
I’ve never been fishing or golfing, so I make a mental note to ask my grandpa about it next time I see him.
I fall into a trance as I feed out rope to my leader absentmindedly, looking up every so often to ask him how it’s going and to sip water from the camel back in the haul bag.
This is the longest I’ve had to myself to do nothing in weeks. I can feel my brain unwinding and the fear in my chest disappears.
“You guys know how to place cams, you are going to be fine. You’ll just figure it out.”, runs through my head again and again. On loop.
In a silent meditation I relax.
Then, all of a sudden, it’s my turn.
To follow a pitch, you don’t climb it, you ascend the rope with Jumars (two metal devices that grip the rope for you and keep you from sliding down to the bottom) and clean the route by stopping every so often to remove the gear the leader left behind. I start up slowly, but determined to go as fast as I can so we don’t waste any time. Everyone says the hardest part about aid climbing is just taking the time to figure out all the systems. If I can save time here, I can use time later to figure out the systems I haven’t perfected yet.
Ascending the rope (or jugging) is like doing a bunch of little tiny pull-ups in a row with these spindly little ladders at your feet to help you stand up. It’s an awkward lurching jugging motion that I have not perfected and by the time I reach the belay I’m sweating. The sun is fully out and shining directly on us as we transition into my lead. Mike is sweating, I’m sweating, but we successfully made it one 8th of the way up the wall with no problem. It feels like a small victory.
On my first lead I feel confident and strong. I cruise through the bolt ladder easily and make it to the belay feeling excited.
This is fun!
I was able to move quickly through all of the sequences and set up the system to haul with no problem. Mike met me at the belay 45 minutes later and began leading up the next pitch.
My worries about big wall climbing seemed to melt away as we slowly inched up the wall. Aid climbing is alternatively relaxing and exciting, it's mentally rewarding and physically a good, but not too difficult workout. I had a glorious view of the valley behind me and although severely uncomfortable at the hanging belay stations, we were used to that kind of pain from previous climbing adventures.
“Sometimes it’s better to be bruised in a different place.” Mike says to me at one of the belay stations. I have to agree, I think as I shift my weight from my feet to my knees against the wall. The harness cutting into my low back moves to cutting into my thighs.
It’s not about being comfortable, its about being the least uncomfortable.
Finally, it was the last lead of the day and also my turn. Things on our end had gone smoothly, but we had been stuck behind another party all day and had been forced to wait for long periods of time at the belay stations. The sun had just set as I reached the last pitch of the day and I was looking at leading my first C2 (aid routes are rated C1-C5) pitch in semi darkness.
I was frustrated at the other party’s slowness but since we were new to this sport we didn’t want to start acting like we knew everything and give the more experienced party a hard time for being slow. I racked up and put my headlamp on, ready to lead the final pitch of the day and finally make it to the spacious Ahwahnee ledge we had been hearing about. This was the first pitch I would have to place gear (cams) on, and I was looking forward to the extra challenge.
You guys know how to place cams, you are going to be fine. You’ll just figure it out.
The bird fluttering in my chest was back, but my frustration at the other party and my desire to get to the comfort of camp drove thoughts of fear out of my head. I double checked our system, looked up and clipped my first piece.
Aid climbing itself is a bit like a moving meditation.
Right arm: reach, clip, stand, clip, rest. Left arm: reach, clip, stand, clip, rest.
Rinse and repeat.
I moved fluidly through the first half, placing cams, stepping high up in my ladders and securely moving along the thin crack that would eventually lead me to the ledge some 80 feet above.
I placed a red C3 cam in a small pin scar above my head, the pin scars were left behind by previous climbers hammering wedges of metal called pitons (or pins for short) into the cracks. The pins were meant to be pulled out by the follower and over time they leave these wiggly flaring holes in the rock, perfect for putting tiny cams into.
The red C3 is wedged securely into the pin scar. I clip my right ladder to it, ‘bounce test’ the piece by pulling and jumping on it to make sure it's going to hold my weight, decide it's good enough and transfer over so I can start getting ready to place my next piece. Mike and are are still close enough to chat, and it’s fun to talk about gear placements while you still can.
“I think I have to place a nut!” I shout down to him. I hate placing nuts, and he knows it. My main sport is free climbing and placing nuts takes way too long. I lose patience with them quickly and place a cam instead, every time.
Mike gives me a good old fashioned heckling as I fumble through my rack of nuts. “Not that one! Are you sure it’s good enough? Don’t blow it!” I finally pick the right size nut for the crack, wedge it in securely and —
I scream before I realize what has happened. I’m hanging 10 feet above Mike, where as moments before I was a good 30 feet up the route and away from the belay. The red C3 at my feet had shifted slightly as I was placing the nut and popped out! Sending me instantly and unexpectedly flying through the air. I look up and see the rack of nuts still hanging in the crack, luckily they hadn’t been pulled out by the force of my fall.
“Hell yeah dude! Taking aid whippers!” I’m still mentally gathering myself but I laugh at Mike and we air high five each other. ‘Taking the whip’ is something of a compliment in climbing, it means you’ve tried hard and fallen anyway.
My adrenaline has skyrocketed but my mind has calmed. Something strange happens when you climb and take a big fall, your body reacts to it, but now that you know its safe, your mind is put at ease.
I feel my hands shaking as I pull myself back to the last piece of protection that held, a rusty old fixed (or stuck) piton. Well, lets try that again. Now that I know the red C3 is no good, I decide not to place it again and go for the nuts instead.
My breathing is accelerated and I do my best to calm my breath so I can continue to make it quickly through this section. The sun is setting, both of our bodies are sore in places we’ve never been sore before, but now I’m on fire. The final stretch of this pitch goes more or less smoothly. I figure out how to do a few hook moves on lead by placing little hook shaped bits of metal over tiny ledges on the rock. It feels very insecure, but there are bolts I can easily reach so I don’t have to sit on them for too long and I make it through with little trouble. It helps that Mike continues to shout instruction and encouragement to me from the belay.
I make it up the final section in the dark doing some very insecure and awkward slab moves to reach the anchors at Ahwahnee ledge. Finally!
I breath a sigh of relief that comes all the way up from the tips of my toes and begin setting up the anchor to bring Mike and the haul bag up.
Victory is sweet and we are rewarded with a large ledge to set up camp on. We unclip all of our gear, securing it to the fixed line on the ledge and dive into the haul bag to get our much needed dinner. Mike is too tired to heat up his food so he opens the can of Indian food and pours it cold over the quinoa we brought and leans exhausted against the granite wall as he shovels food into his mouth. I heat up my can of soup over the tiny butane stove we brought and feel the warmth slide into my stomach and revive me in a way I didn’t know tomato bisque could.
We sit in exhausted silence. Trading my hot soup for his cold quinoa, munching and drinking water, feeling the cold granite against our backs. Staring out at the darkness, the car headlights carving a shining ribbon of light below us contrasts the deep blue of the night sky and the stars overhead.
I break the silence.
“Holy shit.” I say to Mike. “That was hard. But holy shit that was fun! Look at where we are!”
I’m nearly vibrating with fatigue and excitement. I barely have the energy to lift the spoon to my mouth but the joy in my throat makes me forget the sores building up on my hips and the strain in my low back.
We made it.
Although much later than we would have liked, we made it to a ledge 500 feet off the valley floor. I feel tiny against the void, but at the same time mighty for the challenge we overcame. This giant pillar of rock stands unmoved and uncaring by our accomplishment, and yet we are triumphant even still.
In the face of so much indifference it feels as if even more was achieved.
We talk softly as if being loud would somehow disturb the blackness only inches from our swelling and tender feet. Setting up camp is uneventful, we go through the familiar motions of laying down a sleeping pad and sleeping bag. We don’t change clothes or take off our harnesses, but we do remove our shoes and stuff our biggest jackets into the sleeping bags to use as pillows. Laying them on top of the rope makes for an almost comfortable nights sleep, but we are so tired that it doesn’t really matter. We lay down and into each others arms, a familiar comfort in an alien place.
Before I fall like a rock into sleep, I stretch my right arm out away from my body. With my eyes closed in the darkness I feel the tiny grains of gravel against my fingertips as I trace the cold granite slab that supports me. My fingers walk out away from my side until my arm is perpendicular from my body. I feel Mikes warm presence on my left, my head is resting on the space between his shoulder and his chest and I can feel him breathing the slow breaths of someone about to fall dead asleep. The rhythm rocking me gently away from consciousness. My right hand reaches out and I grab the edge of the ledge; fingertips, the first two knuckles, just barely floating freely out into space. I wiggle them like kids do when they reach their hands out of a car window on a road trip.
I'm held on one side by everything that makes life worth living; food, water, human connection, chocolate. And on the other side I'm reaching out, just barely touching the emptiness of space. The terrible nothingness of the edge of a cliff.
This middle place, between life and the tip of the void, is where exhaustion finally overtakes me and I succumb to the blackness of sleep.