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By David Hill

West Face, Leaning Tower

So, having completed my first big wall six weeks ago, my thoughts naturally turned to the school work that I should have been doing instead....well, actually, I spent an awful lot of time thinking about the NEXT wall that I wanted to climb. Two of my climbing buddies, Eric and Dave, had just come off the west face of the leaning tower, raving about the climb, so that seemed like a natural choice. Grade V, easy aid, who cares if the whole thing overhangs!? I emailed my friend Steve about the possibility and it took him all of five minutes to respond with an enthusiastic YES! We kicked around possible dates and gear lists and had a plan in no time.

I knew that the main difference this climb and my first wall was going to be experience. For while I had climbed the south face of washington column with Eric RWallS Renger, Steve had no wall experience and I had only one under my belt. This put me in the position of having the greater amount of experience, which was a new and slightly unsettling circumstance. But hey, we had great beta and assurances from Eric and Dave that we would cruise the route, so what were we waiting for?

A day was spent up at Cragmont Rock in the Berkeley Hills showing Steve how to haul and practicing a bit of free hanging jumaring, which we knew would come in handy on this particular route. Then it was off to the valley, a few days after it had reopened from the flooding. We thought this was very clever of us, as there would certainly not be much traffic on the route.

We drove up to the valley in the evening, planning on an EARLY morning start. Camp 4 was full, which was a surprise, but we just squatted on someone elseUs site, figuring they wouldn't mind, as we would be gone by sunup anyway. The alarm clock went off WAY too early and I wanted to pitch across the campground but we shook ourselves out of bed instead. We headed off to the Bridalveil parking lot where we quickly packed the haul bag (loaned, along with a pipe bomb, cheater stick, belay seat, and other misc. gear to us by Mr. RWallS Renger. Good guy to know!). We headed up the approach by 6:15 a.m. which certainly seemed as though it would assure us first crack at the route. We did the approach slightly wrong (head hard left from the parking lot!) but eventually (gasp) got to the approach ledge. Traversing out along this ledge, we were passed at the last minute by another party without gear. This perplexed us for a minute, until we discerned that they had left their gear at the base of the climb the previous day, due to heavy traffic on the route. Being beat to the climb at the LAST possible moment was very disappointing, but that is how things go sometimes.

Steve and I assesed the situation and decided we would wait and see how fast these guys were climbing before making any decisions. So we sat and waited, and waited, and waited. We were finally able to start up the first pitch by 12:30, which means that we could have gotten at least four hours more sleep at Camp 4! Anyway, Steve was psyched to lead the first pitch, so I let him have the honor. Entirely fixed, the pitch offered no difficulties in terms of aid, but had some wild exposure. Due to the overhang, after the first few bolts, youUre looking 300 ft down at the ground! I marvelled at how the haul line kept getting farther and farther away from the wall as he worked his way up the bolts and manky copperheads. By the time he got the belay, the weather had deteriorated and it was raining reasonably hard. Due to the overhang however, we were staying nice and dry. We decided, due to the weather, and to the number of parties ahead, that we should probably just leave the first pitch fixed and wait until the following morning. So I cleaned the pitch which Steve had the pleasure of a free hanging rappel down the haul line. It had indeed been a frustrating day, but a quick hike down to the valley floor, followed by pizza and beer, brightened things. Afterwards, we hiked back up and slept on the approach ledge, hoping for better luck in the morning.

The next morning, we got up early, wanting to get a good start. The weather looked promising so we decided to go for it. Of course, with the first pitch now fixed, we were looking at a spooky free hanging jug up to the belay. Talk about wild! I lowered Steve out and he went up to set up the haul. When I cut the bag loose, it swung out at least 25 ft from the wall. Then (gulp) I had the pleasure of lowering myself out! After completing the climb, we both agreed that this was the spookiest part of the climb. Anyway, pitch 2 was an easy bolt ladder and I would have linked it with pitch 3, but couldn't spot the belay and didn't want to get hung up with rope drag. It turned out that 3 was quite short, and if you use some runners on 2, linking them should be no problem. Steve took 3, which was the first real aid on the route. This left me with 4, the last pitch leading up to Ahwahnee Ledge. Right off the belay there are a few pins along with a few cam placements and to my amazement, I had a cam blow on me and I went for a nice 12 ft ride back down to the belay! Ah, nothing to hit on an overhanging wall, though! Back up I went, and this time the cam behaved, leading to a lot of bolts and rivets and ending with a few free moves onto the ledge.

Looking up past the ledge, we saw a continuous line of parties, which made us very glad that we hadn't continued on the previous day. After a quick lunch, we began to work on pitches 5 and 6. Pitch 5 turned out to be fairly strenuous and time consuming. Steve led it well, but the diagonal ramp looked pretty tough. Seconding it was pretty hard as well; I ended up freeing some of the ramp, which seemed to be easier in sections. After that, 6 was a breeze; some free climbing followed by a reachy bolt ladder. We rapped back down to the ledge from here, having a quick dinner before falling into an exhausted sleep.

The following morning we woke early, as I was anxious to get off the climb in one more day. We jugged our line and were ready to start leading pitch 7 by 8 a.m. Steve took this pitch, which is quite long with very few fixed pieces. It was a lengthy lead and by the end I was absolutely freezing my butt off and very thankful to be moving again. This left me with pitches 8 and 9 which are easily linked together. Pitch 8 is a super short traverse, while pitch 9 is a WILD roof. I would recommend using a lot of runners on pitch 8 and at the start of 9. Anyway, as I started up the roof, I was amazed at the exposure. Sitting there in your aiders, with 1000 ft of air under you is pretty cool, I have to say. The roof was almost entirely fixed, which made it pretty easy, if strenuous. There were a lot of tattered slings threaded through the eyes of fixed pins and if you have ever wondered if and when these slings break, I found out. Luckily I had clipped two of them so I only fell but an inch. Nonetheless, I threw in a cam straightaway! By the end, the rope drag was pretty bad, but I managed to get to the belay. Steve got his butt kicked seconding the pitch, which was easy for me to understand, having just led it!

So, one more to go, and we were both pretty excited...I urged Steve on, as the weather was looking pretty crummy once again. As he worked up the pitch, I kept my eye on the skies and got more and more concerned and the far end of the valley disappeared under clouds. Shortly thereafter, it started to snow...And it wasn't just a little flurry, it started to DUMP snow. This was initially alarming, but again, due to the overhang, we were virtually untouched. It was actually a pretty cool experience. Sitting on a great ledge, belaying my partner in the middle of a major snowstorm. Steve made short work of the pitch and I quickly jugged up to the top. As testimony to the flaky nature of valley weather, the sun was shining and the skies were clear by the time I got to the top. After a brief celebration, we headed down the rappels, both eager to see horizontal ground again!

After several hours of rappels and a hike down the talus, we once again found ourselves in the Bridalveil parking lot, without need of headlamps even! It had been a crazy couple of days, mentally and physically tough. Be we were ecstatic to have completed the climb in good style. Steve had accomplished his first wall and I was pleased to have climbed a wall without the safety net of a far more accomplished climber to rely on. Eager to sleep in our own beds that night, we hightailed it out of the valley, both exhausted and happy.

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