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So You Wanna Do the Leaning Tower?

By Dingus Milktoast

"So you wanna do the Leaning Tower?" The words of a simpleton? Probably. The words of a crackpot? Wouldn't be surprised. The words of adventure? For us, maybe. This time I'm dumb enough to ask Burl. This time he's dumb enough to say yes. It's easy to say yes to a big wall when it's weeks away. Real easy...

"Yeah, sure. What kind of gear will I need?" Gear? You don't need no stinking gear! Beware the partner who declares to have all the bases covered. Burl's never done a wall. Burl's never aided a thing. But I trust him. Well, maybe not with my women. And maybe not with my car. But I do trust him with my life. He won't quit; ever. He knows how to dig deep and keep going. In other words, he knows how to wall climb already. He just needs to execute.

"A pair of jumars, some aiders; that oughta do it. I got the rest." Me, Big Wall Dingus, with a wall or two under my belt, have got all the bases covered. What I cain't steal, I figure I'll borrow or buy! Yep, it's easy to promise to do a big wall when it's weeks away. It's also easy to let it go. But I pester him to death. Every trip to the valley, every pass around the loop, every conversation that drifts towards the future; I pop the question.

"So we're still gonna do the Leaning Tower, aren't we?" The `aren't we" part spit out sarcastically, tauntingly, as if to dare him to chicken out. But we both screw up. We let slip we're gonna do it. Word gets out. It becomes, shall we say, difficult to back out. I feel psychotic. At times I know we're gonna die. Then I strut like a rooster. But suddenly it becomes all too real..

"Hey Dingus, I bought me some gear..." Oh shit! We're in for it now. Burl just sank a couple of hundred bucks into the necessary basics of wall scratching. By god, he's gonna make me climb that damn thing now! I can feel it on the sides of my face, like the cool breeze of a Sierra night; the wind of commitment, the kiss of fear. Damn! The appointed weekend comes all too soon. We pack the pig.

"Will a half pint of cream be enough?" Burl asks. Some things can't be done without. We may be roughing it, but that doesn't mean we're gonna skip the basics. Air, water, toilet paper; and dark roast coffee on a cold morning! I've been down that road enough times to know I can dick it out au' natural, but why? Fact is, I know better. We plan as best our limited minds are able, and throw it all into the bag. Duh, we're like, ready.

"How do we get all this shit up there to the base of the climb?" Hello! Is anybody there? We'll pay some of the local natives to carry it? Not likely. Burl doesn't wanna fight the load up in the dark on the morning of the climb. He volunteers to take it up the day before. I contemplate not doing my fair share, for oh, say 3 microseconds, then heartily agree and slap him on the back. I drop the keys for the forklift into his hand and get the Hell out of there before he can change his mind! As I drive off into the sunset, I can see him standing there, looking from the keys, to the forklift, to the haulbag, to the keys..

"Where the fuck you been?" I'm late. Burl's pissed, or I should say pissed as Burl's going to get. That equates to a slight frown from time to time, but nothing more outward. Burl just doesn't get mad. Or if he does, he doesn't let on. See... the perfect wall partner! It's 10 pm and he's been waiting all afternoon for me at the Bridalveil Falls parking lot. He hauled everything but food up to the base of the Tower in two trips, then spent the rest of the day bouldering and soloing on Ranger Rock. We crash in the woods with a 4 am wakeup call into the front desk.

"Hey Burl, you awake? I feel sick to my stomach. It's a feeling I know I'll have to get used to for the next couple days. It's the taste of fear. We struggle out of our bags, stow our car camping gear and brew up some joe to help us along. Damn that's good! We stumble through the darkness, up vast scree slopes, finding the trail, losing it, finding it again. We reach the approach ledges at first light. Listing there, waiting like a slovenly whore, is our pig. She seems to grin at me in secret joy. I have to carry her across the "4th class" ledges.

"You mean we're gonna climb up that?" Burl eyes the anchors, 150 feet above us and at least 25 feet out from the base. A line of bolts lead up a blank wall, briefly intersecting an A2 crack before resuming their soldier-like march to the belay. Yup, Warren's been here! The approach has been... interesting. Lot's of cool air beneath my heels. The 80 pound haulbag drags at my back. I have to make 2 trips over the last bit, chickenshit that I am. Now I stand beneath the most intimidating stretch of rock I've ever seen. It finally enters my thick skull that we're really going to climb this thing! I throw myself at the first bolt before I can change my mind. Damn! It's so steep that even A1 bolt clipping is hard.

"If there was any way off this damn thing, I'd say let's get the fuck outta here right now!" I know exactly how he feels. I couldn't agree more! We're at the top of the first pitch and it's clear we're both gonna die. But a rap would leave us 25 feet out in space. Tatty bolts, rivets, frayed heads; this baby is the scariest A1 I've touched. So rotten is some of the fixed gear on the next pitch, it'd rate A2 or even A2+ in fall factor. The haul bag doesn't touch the wall until the belay.

"Hey Dingus, what do I do when I can't reach the next piece?" Jump? Fly? Cry? Without even looking up I tell him to just top step it. Easy advice; tough to do on an overhang. Burl takes a fall trying to hook a flake. The hook smacks him in the mouth. The resulting herpes-like sore on his lower lip bugs me for the rest of the climb. He also blows out a fixed head on his way down. Back up he goes, pausing, then top-stepping like I told him. Finally he reaches the belay. Even the cleaning is tough. Every piece has tension on it, as if I were following a traverse. I suppose I am; the traverse isn't left or right, it's out!

"WWWatch Me!" I quake as I ease on to an imperfectly placed hook on a sloping flake. The broken shaft of an ancient quarter-incher peeks laughingly out of it's useless hole; impossible to use. The next bolt is a long way above and there are no cracks at all. I'm in the second step when the flake blows. Unexpected, the hook smacks me in the face too, though my sunglasses take the brunt of the blow. No communicable disease scabs for me! Glory be, my first aid fall! I batman back up to the top piece immediately. Hell, if I hung there for more than a second, I'd go totally berserk. This time I use the hammer to seat that hook. It still takes a top step on the wobbly bastard to reach the next bent bolt.

"What the Hell is that?" Burl points up. Something is hanging out in space high on the route. It's so far out from the wall it seems disconnected from reality. After squinting a few seconds we both realize it's moving. We're watching someone jug the massive overhang near the top. Holy shit! We've gonna do that? That poor slob up there must be hanging 50 feet out! I study the situation as Burl leads up to Guano Ledge in fading light. Yeah, we're gonna die up here.

"Hi Honey, it's me." Yup, I'm a yuppie bastard with a cell phone. Aren't you jealous? The call to home puts me in the best spirits since the start of this circus. We're not gonna get off this thing tomorrow as planned. We're just moving too slow. The call let's me warn my wife and daughter. Knowing they know I'm all right eases some of my psychological baggage. A dinner of warm chili and cold beer, plus some of Burl's patented herbal desert restores balance. The Awhannee Ledge is a most awesome bivi ledge. I fall asleep dreaming of eagles and death.

"Rock climbing faggots!" I scream this at the top of my considerable lungs after leading the wildly exposed traverse on the 5th pitch. A soloist on the 3rd pitch looks up at me in confusion. No, I'm not talking to him. I'm not talking to the tourists down in the parking lot either. I'm not really talking to anyone. It's just a Dingus shout of defiance, the only way he knows. Burl has the honor of following this pitch. Better him than me. As awkward as it was to lead, it must be really tough to clean.

"This is 5.7?" Burl asks this incredulous question in the face of unprotected free climbing with 50 pounds of gear on his back. No problemo, I assure him, though I hold the rope in a death grip and silently pray he won't fall until he gets something, anything, resembling pro between us. This pitch sports a bolted traverse and rumor has it that two bolts in a row are missing. The holes are plugged with rivets so Burl reaches the belay in record time. This will be the quickest lead of the route.

"See, this is what happens when you don't keep the belays straight." I lecture Burl about proper rope management, only to have it quietly pointed out that it was me who screwed it up. Oh well, ain't the first time in my life I stuck my foot in my mouth! Red faced, I apologize. I'd warned Burl of this big wall asshole phenomena. The strain and fear adds up. Frayed nerves lead to arguments and hard words. We had an agreement from the start; none of that shit! This is the only time we come close.

"You want this lead Dingus?" Burl asks this hopefully as he eyes the wild overhang above. It's huge! The answer's in my eyes. There's no need for verbal communication at this point. My entire body radiates the universal code for `Fuck no!' I giggle helplessly as I watch him swing in free space on every move. It's just unreal how steep it is. I end up cleaning in the dark. Crime in Italy, it's hard cleaning an overhang like this! As I reach a cam in the most remote corner of the roof, I pass my jumars and yank. Out and down I go, spinning in dark space like Darth Vader. Finally I flop like a dying fish onto the sloping belay ledge.

"Uhh, this is Dingus... I think I'm gonna be a little late tomorrow..." And you thought the cell phone was some yuppie plot for a gumbie rescue! It just paid for itself bro. I make several calls warning various people I won't be available on Monday. I'll bet that's the most implausible excuse they've ever heard. Duh, we're like, um... stuck on a wall! Hah! I can't help laughing about it. The ledge slopes enough that we keep sliding off during the night. But amazingly, I sleep. Morning has Burl calling in sick to work as well. Too funny!

"I'm up!" I'm on the biggest ledge of the climb. This is where we should have bivied. There's a little bit of 4th class stuff betwixt me and the summit, but I'm basically done. I haul, fix a rope to the top and start the final rack sort as Burl cleans pitch 10. Another inspirational "Rock Climbing Faggots!" hails the important news. Burl and Dingus have surmounted the Leaning Tower! All that remains is an easy walkout, right?

"Hey Dingus, I thought you said the descent was trivial?" Okay, I lied! It's a bunch of raps down slabs and chimneys, with plenty of loose blocks waiting to kill us. It just never ends. We do the last rap under a deathly silence. The home stretch of an adventure, what else is there to say? We both know more about each other right now than we really need. No use adding to the noise, right? An hour long stumble through the talus sees us back to the cars. It's 4 pm and I've got to be in L.A. tomorrow morning for a big meeting.

"I feel like some kind of God!" Burl's remark rings true. We're sorting gear in the parking lot and at least 6 thousand tourists are gaping at the assemblage of gear and grime. It's erie! I can feel their eyes upon us, but not a single one of them says a word. We strut around as if we live here, throwing gear in our cars, changing right there in the parking lot, seemingly oblivious to the entire spectacle, but posing the whole time. Finally, we shake hands goodbye and hit the road, heading off in opposite directions.

"Was it real?" I ask Burl the rhetorical question. A couple of weeks have passed. The pain is gone. The fear is gone. The aluminum oxide is almost gone. My fingernails are growing back. My life has returned to some sense of normalcy. The worst of the Leaning Tower has faded from immediate memory. In it's place is a profound sense of... accomplishment. We laugh. The whole time we were on the Tower, all we could focus on was getting off. Now all we can think about is doing another! Go figure.

"So what's next?" The words of a simpleton? Probably. The words of a crackpot? Wouldn't be surprised. The words of someone who just doesn't learn? Obviously. This time I'm confident enough to ask Burl. This time he's experienced enough to say yes. It's easy to say yes to a big wall when it's weeks away. Real easy...

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