By Michael A. Esparza and Ben Craft.
I had been dreaming about doing a wall since the day I learned that people climb them back in 1994. Little did I know that my first day climbing back in '94 would lead me to be the compulsive big wall fiend I am today. I never knew what it took as far as gear and physical ability was concerned. After learning the ropes I found myself at the base of the Tower four years later.
About two weeks before climbing Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainer, Ben Craft, a rec.climbing freak and climbing buddy from school, asked if I wanted to climb the Tower with him when and if I returned from Washington. Happier and more excited than virgin at a whore house, I immediately agreed. One problem though, of course, my wife and family. I was already going to Washington for four days and would be leaving again for another four days a couple of weeks later. As selfish as I am, I had to figure out a way to go with out pissing her off and prevent her from leaving me for a regular, well-dressed, well- groomed, dedicated kiss-ass individual. Besides, I had a decent job at the time and everything had been taken care of.
Things worked out at home and I found myself doing the very thing that I hate most. Staying up for over 30 some-out hours. Ben and I racked the gear the day before we left and I went to work for my usual 12 hour grave-yard shift from 5:30 p.m. to about 6:00 a.m. on Thursday. I got off of work, drove home half asleep, said hello to my wife and gave her and my kids a kiss goodbye while Ben frustratingly waited for me. We pack in his small piece of shit Corolla and headed to the valley. On the way, we stoped in L.A. for some gnarly Chorizzo and Egg burritos that would haunt us later that day. 5 hours and a couple of mini naps later found us in Bridalvail Falls parking lot. Ben hands me a key to his car which I connect in the haul bag and he takes a second key.
We hike up all of our crap to the base of the Tower bringing much more than what we needed. What did we know; it was my first wall and Ben's second. It takes us two trips - Ugh! The approach is pretty straight forward with marked cairns. We drink a beer and head up to the base to sleep in a mosquito infestation. On the way, Ben's keen eye spotted a European hammer which was well needed since he did not have one. We awoke the following morning to find the gnarly traverse out to the tree. Ben heads out first and secures a line to haul the bags over. This takes about an hour until I join him at the first bolt ladder. Looking up in amazement, I found the first move to be overhanging. This was it. All or nothing. This was what I had been waiting for for so long and I was thinking about how mentally disturbed I was. All I could think of was the fact that it would be over in a couple of days. Well, if this was the case then the sooner I start the sooner I finish.
Off I went into "The realm of the overhang." I got to lead the first two pitches which consisted of pitch one and connecting two and three. All I remember is a shit load of rusty bolts - some, actually many, were spinners and some manky heads. Some hangers were gone which required the usual rivet hanger. I only placed one pin on the second pitch. This was my second time ever aiding, the first time being at a local shit pile in Riverside, CA. And from this, you guessed it, took most of the day. I remember being about halfway up the first pitch when all of the fear had diminished and I realized how content I was with myself. I would look down and find Ben about thirty feet in front and about 100 feet below me. I was stoked to have the first lead. Ben got the fourth pitch which also took him a little bit of time. This took us to the Ahwahnee ledge; A resort for the wall climber with plenty of room and a fixed rope for clipping into. It was dark. We ate power bars, beef jerky and some canned chicken in a tortilla. This would be my only comfortable sleep on the wall.
We awoke the following morning around six or seven a.m.. It was Ben's lead on the fifth pitch which traversed right along the wall. I remember there being a lot of fixed gear and Ben only placed a single pin. Now it was time to jug the traverse which was an epic in itself. It took me about an hour to get to his belay; I think he planned these pitches so he would not have to jug it! Little did I know that there was such a thing as aiding to clean a traverse. I learned the hard way. About half way through the pitch, I noticed the haul line which was connected to the back of my harness to the bags about 100 feet to the left of me, start falling down off of the haul bag and into oblivion. I saw my life flash before me as the bags jolted sideways about two to three feet, just off the end of the ledge. It seemed as if the ten second incident lasted ten minutes. I felt a strong compression like yank on my back and then looked straight at Ben's face. We both had the same expression; as if we had just seen flying monkeys. Alas, I was at the belay and ready to start leading the sixth pitch.
I don't remember too much about this pitch except that there was some 5.7-5.8 free moves for about fifteen to twenty feet to a bolt. It sounds easy but being high off of the deck with "Vans" tennis shoe and a wall rack was enough to make my nerves turn to jelly. I don't remember this pitch being too long (a bunch of bolts and rivet moves) when I found myself at the belay. The bag was hauled, I drank a bunch of water since I felt like I was in the desert and got ready to lead pitch seven.
Pitch seven is ultra-classic A0 - A1 stopper/micro brassie moves for about 100 feet. To this day, I don't know why it took me so long to lead this pitch. It must of been three hours or so. Probably because I am a gumby - new to the wall arena. I got to the belay just as night was drawing. I hauled the bags and Ben jugged up to meet me. It would be Ben's lead on pitch eight and nine which were connected in one pitch. We pulled out our head lamps, I fixed up the belay chair and Ben took off into the night. This was the pitch of the climb which had the awesome roof. Ben, that lucky bastard, was probably in heaven. This pitch also took Ben a while and I found myself falling in and out of quick naps. I was exhausted and luckily for Ben, everything went well. It must have been around 2:00 a.m. when he fixed the belay on top of pitch nine. I fixed the bags up and Ben hauled while I jugged into darkness; not being able to see the ground below now proved a false sense of security to me. I arrived below the roof and had a hard time getting past it with the jugs. All I had to do was just aid over the roof while moving my jugs. Major brain fart that cost me about an hour to cover thirty feet. Pretty damn pathetic. What else would you expect from a GUMBY! I arrived at a sloping ledge to find Ben crashed out. I looked at my watch and it was almost 5:00 a.m.. I pulled a haul bag over and sat up against it with my feet hanging into oblivion for a 45 minute rest. I could not believe it, my first wall and I had been climbing for nearly 24 hours. I felt like I could of kept going.
At first light we got things organized and Ben finished the last pitch. There was some easy free climbing which led to what looked like a difficult hook placement followed by a #4 Cam placement. I followed the last patch to gain the Tower. Was it over? Was this it? It did not seem so hard after everything was finished. But wait, we were not finished, we had a half a day's rappel waiting for us. The Decent was uneventful. Multiple rappels down the South side of the Tower off of bolts and some scranny looking trees. Several hours after we had reached the top found us at the base of the climb. We put the ropes away and trotted down to the parking lot where our buddies Dwayne and Greg were waiting. They had noticed our headlamps up there the previous night and worried that an epic was taking place. We dropped our bags to the floor and I pulled out the key to Ben's car.
I tried to insert the key into the door and it would not fit. Shit, I said to myself. The key would not work into the door or the trunk. Ben looked for his spare key and could not find it. He had dropped it off of the wall some how. I even told him to use a hide-a-key but as stubborn as he is , he refused. All I wanted was a Coke and some Pizza and I was not going to have it since my wallet was in the car. It was like having blue-balls for hours! Greg and I drove to Yosemite Village and got a tow-truck guy to jimmy Ben's door open. Now I had my wallet but Ben could still not find a spare key. It turns out that he gave me the key to his wife's car! It is hard to believe that he is working on a Master's degree some times. Got to love the guy! We ended up eating some burritos from the market which were hard to describe as food. Greg and I split the following day while Ben and Dwayne waited around for another three days to knock off Royal Arches and to wait for a Locksmith.
On the way home I drank about a gallon of Coke and had many bong loads. I was thinking how fortunate I was to have such an experience on a wall. I had been dreaming of it for years and was now done. I could not wait for the next one which turned out to be the South Face of the Column a month later. Muir Wall on El Cap. Is scheduled for my next one in May or June of this year.
In conclusion, I felt the climb was of moderate level for a beginning wall but very intimidating. I learned a lot of what not to do which proved good on my following climbs. The most I got out of the climb was more ambition and drive to do more. I am a sick and compulsive person and need to be fed!
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