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A 14 year old on Leaning Tower

By Irving J. Oppenheim

This is a long trip report describing the fine climb I had this August, led by my son Daniel on the Leaning Tower, West Face Route. Although this is an oft-climbed route, with many trip reports available electronically, my account may be useful to struggling climbers who have yet to do their first wall, or who are not strong enough to carry 100 pound haul bags, or who cannot swarm up routes in record time. This report is also meant to convey the admiration I have for my son and the satisfaction I get from our climbing experiences together.

Some background is in order. Despite the fact that I have climbed enthusiastically for more than 25 years, I climb at a modest level. I am fine on 5.7, OK on 5.8, and the number of 5.9 moves I have done successfully is limited; similarly, my leading stops abruptly when I worry about a fall, or about the gear, and so on. (For a perspective, read a Yosemite guidebook by Roper, where he talks about "hard" or "difficult" moves at 5.6 or so.) For your information, this is not a consequence of decay with age; presently, at 48, my climbing is at its peak! Daniel, on the other hand, is a natural. I took him on his first multi-pitch climb at age 7, and the next year he was running up climbs like the Hobbit Book and the Nutcracker, led not by me but by my longtime partner. Daniel immediately became motivated to do long classic routes in the Valley. It is noteworthy that he had been climbing for three years before he ever climbed on an indoor wall.

Daniel wanted to lead from an early age, and by the time he was 12 he was solid in his judgement and protection/anchoring execution. Since that time he has done most of our leading. Naturally, our greatest aspiration was for a big wall climb. In all my years I never imagined that to be possible for me, but when Daniel emerged as a top-class talent I began to hope that it might happen. Finally, when Daniel was 12, I took the step toward that goal by reconsidering a lifelong policy, deciding that we were not capable physically of doing it alone, not having a partner capable of doing it with us, and instead approaching the Yosemite Mountaineering School. Indeed, with a guide (Eric Craig) we had the opportunity to learn what was needed of aid techniques and practices, and we proceeded to do the Washington Column, South Face, with him. Success on a wall does require mental toughness, focus, a strong sense of responsibility, and so on; I was proud that Daniel could demonstrate such qualities far beyond his years. Emboldened by that success, we came out to the Valley the following year to attempt the Rostrum as a wall route, with me leading the aid pitches. We finished the first day's climbing at midnight, and then one of us (not Daniel) dropped a foodbag and all of our large gear from the bivy ledge in the dark. We bailed, obviously, but then we went back to YMS in the person of Doug Nidever for a day climb of the upper five pitches. Daniel just scampered up everything below 5.11. Therefore, by age 13 Daniel had done 2 grade V routes, had cruised everything he had ever seen at 5.11 or less, and had led many classic routes through 5.9.

This past summer we committed ourselves to doing wall routes, the first being Leaning Tower. Daniel weighs less than 100 pounds, so the hauling was something of a concern for us when we were planning the effort. Also, we are incapable of packing in with heavy loads. Finally, we knew from the previous year that aid climbing would be fun but slow. We decided to carry 5 gallons of water, 4 of them in the form of Gatorade, equalling one gallon per person per day for 2-1/2 days. We hoped to bivy the second night at the ledge at the top of pitch 9, leaving only one pitch and the descent for day 3. (For those who do not know, there is Ahwahnee ledge at the top of pitch 4, our target ledge at the top of pitch 9, and then the summit ledge at the top of pitch 10. Otherwise, every pitch ends at a hanging belay.)

We drove to the Valley from the airport, and I had a plan to cache some water bottles, some canned food, one rope, and our wall tube that same day. Indeed, we reached the Valley around 4 PM, and this plan worked like a charm. It took us 1-1/2 hours to reach the traverse ledge, carrying perhaps 25 or 30 pounds or gear between us. The approach ascends a talus field of large boulders, and it is obvious that one aims for the apex of the talus field and then steps onto the traverse ledge. Actually, the ledge quickly becomes gripping. For the last 100 feet we definitely needed a rope. We left the gear at the last point prior to roping up, and Daniel then climbed the last 100 feet, roped, to assure that we had found the base of the climb. (A note for other mortals: It is amazing how many people screw up the approach to climbs, or get onto the wrong climb, or waste a day or two looking for the approach, and so on. Look, look, look, and think. Make sure you know where you are going!)

The next day we climbed Royal Arches, carrying bivy gear in our backpacks and intending to spend the night on the rim, mostly as a training and toughening exercize. When we got down the following day we made a second stash of more water and supplies. While doing so we found a six-piece cheater stick, something I had sort of wanted, and I took this as an omen and included it in our gear for the climb.

Finally, the night before our climb we were hanging at Degnan's, packing bagels and cheese for the route. Our supplies included Pringles (which have always been a hit on these routes), cans of fruit cocktail, peanut butter, and many small bags of jelly beans, trail mix, dried pineapple, and so on. One of the regulars came up to us and told us to get to the route early, because he knew that another party was to attempt it as well, and he warned me that they would be way slow. Accordingly, Daniel and I left camp at around 6 AM, reaching our cache at around 9. We were carrying the requisite cams, stoppers, rivet hangers, one Cliffhanger hook, and two aiders each; we took no pitons, no heads, and no bolt kit. (There are many fixed heads, and generally one would want some pins or heads to replace any which might have blown, but with a cheater stick we felt we could just reach past any such spot.) We had a 10.2 mm lead line, a 9 mm haul line, and a 7 mm lower-out line. We took a Wall-Hauler, and my experience with it certainly leads me to recommend it. We each had full raingear, bivy sack, a ripstop nylon belay seat, and I threw in an old Chouinard Peapod hammock. (Our gear is assembled from our own and from that of a dear friend even older than I, so we have many of these funky old things like his hammock.) In retrospect, the climb would have been far more comfortable using simple plywood bivy seats.

Another note for first timers: You cannot believe how much time it will take you to pack your gear. It took us an hour or so at the car, despite having sorted most major components in advance. It then took us another hour or so at the cache spot to pack our haulbag, a Fish Grade VI. While we doing so the other party turned up, consisting of Luke and Heidi, and Heidi was looking forward to leading some or many of the pitches. They were very gracious and patient with us. I learned that Luke had soloed the route in something like 9 hours, so I began to suspect that we would be a lot slower than they would be. Still, it was understood that they would wait for us.

Well, things started badly. I made an errant decision, thinking that we should haul the bag from our cache spot to the start of the climb 100 feet away. We fixed the lead line as a trundle line, attached the haulbag to it, and tried dragging the bag across. This was one of the stupidest things I have done. It was a major screw-up, with the bag getting tangled, wasting an hour in the process. Instead, we should have fixed the trundle line and then carried the gear on our back in three or four trips like Luke did, packing the bag at the very base of the climb itself.

The climb starts in a bolt ladder on a severely overhanging wall and ends at a point leaving one hanging out over space. The ledge itself is frightfully exposed at the outset. I was certainly affected by the exposure while waiting on the ledge, while doing the first pitch, and then when first hanging at that belay. The rest of the climb is comparably exposed, but after these first reactions the issue disappeared for me, totally. Anyway, Daniel moved along merrily, confidently, and slowly. I guess it was 2:30 by the time he had finished the first pitch. Luke, ever polite, announced that they were going to leave their gear and return to start the climb on another day. We had skunked their plans for that day, but they were (as I said) gracious.

It was noteworthy that Daniel had no trouble hauling our bag. There is zero contact between the bag and the rock or the rope and the rock. However, by the time we finished the second pitch it was obvious that we had no hope of reaching Ahwahnee early enough to fix pitches 5 and 6, which would have been the ideal way to get ready for day two, and we were hard-pressed even to reach Ahwahnee by dark! Somewhere early on the third pitch Daniel used the cheater stick rather than screw with some sketchy placements, mostly because we realized time was an issue. He also did a hook move on that pitch or the next, and I note that he did not use a hook at the location where the topo indicates so, but instead found heads at that spot.

We reached Ahwahnee just about dark. As we settled in and laid back I watched hundreds (thousands?) of bats depart from the roof above and to the right of our bivy ledge. While we had a seemingly ample water ration, we were thirsty. I could not get down a bite of food without an accompanying swallow. I do not know if this was thirst, or stress, or perhaps a physiological consequence of having hung in my harness for 10 hours or so, but it was certainly the case. In the middle of the night the moon came over, and it was like a spotlight. I though I was in bed, awakened by someone turning on a lamp.

We started day two in fine spirits, looking forward to the climbing, both of us enjoying the slow pace of aid climbing. Pitch 5 traverses and is somewhat awkward, but there were many fixed pins. It took Daniel a while to lead it, but he was impressed with my speed following. Pitch 6 then traverses back, so we did not haul but instead trailed the haul line. From the top of pitch 6 I rappelled down to the ledge to release and lower-out the haulbag, and then I lowered myself out to do the free jumar back up. A lower-out line is needed if you want to avoid some big swings!

Sometime around 2 PM Daniel started pitch 7. This proved to be a full 50 m ropelength with almost no fixed gear and with some awkward corners (overhanging, of course, like the climb overall) such that it took Daniel 6-1/2 hours to lead it. He had been on it for a few hours and was still below the halfway point, so I was able to send him more Gatorade. (The sun hits the West Face around 1:30, and there is no relief until dusk.) Daniel encountered some real problems toward the end of the pitch, when he entered another overhanging corner. He started to move up it, but encountered rope drag beneath him where the rope had to pass up into the corner. It was overhanging, so he had to down-aid to get below the corner and attach longer slings. As he finally neared the top of the corner he could see the anchor a few steps to the right of the corner, free moves. Remember, the kid had been leading this pitch for 5 hours already in the hot sun, and had probably spent 9 hours in the lead that day as of that instant. However, the rope jammed, locked, beneath him. He had to down-aid again, and when he was halfway down the corner the rope freed itself. He readjusted slings and went back up the corner. However, once again near the top of the corner the rope jammed. Once again he down-aided and freed the rope. This time he pulled out a large amount of slack, sufficient to get him to the anchors. However, this time as he neared the top of the corner the slack in the tope slid down by gravity and then the rope immediately jammed when he tried to bring it back up! This was brutal, and soon to get a little worse. As he down-aided, and reached the point where the rope again came free, I (errantly, perhaps because my brain was cooked from the long day in the sun) thought I could lower him down a little ways. I had lost perspective on the fact that this was overhanging significantly, and I ended up lowering him out, way out as it were, with no contact to the rock. The poor kid is hanging at the end of a rope, 1000 feet up, and his fool of a father had put him there. After some screaming at the circumstance, and despite being whipped physically by all of this, he pulled it together, attached his jumars to the rope and got himself back up to the piece from which I had lowered him. He then pulled up the slack in the rope and tied it off, statically, to the piece. He was therefore at the end of a static line as he repeated the upper portion of the corner and then made the free moves to the anchor. This was, of course, a desperate choice but it seems a reasonable one in retrospect. (Before flaming, remember that he was also attached to the haul line. Obviously, it would have been better to have eliminated the jamming, but three previous attempts to do so had failed. I suspect that the offending geometry was lower down on the pitch, and it could take a long time to reach it and correct it!)

As I cleaned the pitch I thought about our situation. I enjoy aid climbing at night, but I had no idea how long the next two pitches would take, and I thought it would be unwise to set and take down two more anchors in the dark. Therefore, I was inclined to bivy at that anchor. I also decided that Daniel needed some mental relief, even though he did not ask for it, and I decided to propose that I lead the subsequent pitches on the morrow. Anyway, I got to the anchor shortly after dark, and said "Daniel, we're in good shape. We have plenty of water and food, and it won't be a problem to settle in here and finish up in the morning. Also, I'll lead from here, if that is OK with you." He had one question, which was (simply) how much water we had, and we each had 1/2 gallon out of the day two supply, with another 1/2 gallon each for day three. With that response he beamed and agreed that things would be fine.

We were at a bomber belay. It was just at the "lip" of a short slab, but in a hanging position one was still fully exposed; a crumb dropped from one's mouth fell straight down to the forest below, nowhere coming near the rock. I got out food and water, and forced Daniel to eat. Daniel busied himself by weaving the haul line into something like a hammock (actually an emergency litter which he had seen in some book) to use as a kind of improved belay seat; he found the activity therapeutic. In retrospect, perhaps I might have set up the Peapod hammock and/or rigged something with the haulbag. However, I wanted to focus on squaring things away, not screwing things up, and so on, so I suggested we settle in as we were. We were hanging in a spooned position, but Daniel did not complain. As it got colder I took one of the sleepings bags and draped it around us, like a cocoon.

While it felt good at first to settle in, pressure against my hips from the harness and belay seat became unbearable if I did not move every 10 minutes or so. In the course of a day one suffers it, but you do not notice it as clearly because you move around. It became apparent that sleep was unlikely for me. Unfortunately, my movements would wake Daniel, because we really were clamped together. Then, of course, it got cold, and we really needed the sleeping bag around us, together.

Nevertheless, it was not unbearable, and I kept telling Daniel we were in fine shape, and we could be proud of our attitude. The next morning we roused ourselves and ate breakfast, packed up and reracked for me to lead. Well, I lucked out and took over the lead for the pitches that were the easiest, by far! Pitch 8, such as it was, seemed only about 30 feet long, going up an A1 crack on a slablike face, straightforward and trivial. Pitch 9 then appeared to be a major challenge. It went around the major roof on the route and up some overhanging corners. I was about 15 or 20 feet up, going out the roof, when Daniel told me that I had a loose aider. Somehow it had become unclipped from the biner at the end of my daisy, and had fallen free but had draped itself over the rope below me. Somehow I hooked it with my foot and recaptured it. (Thank you, Daniel!) In theory Pitch 9 might have been as difficult (and time-consuming) as Pitch 7, but instead it was almost all fixed gear and was thoroughly enjoyable. I could relish the idea of getting up in my aider and reaching for a fixed piece; it would have been painfully slow had I been placing much gear. The pitch went quickly and I reached the anchor and ledge, the first time in 30 hours that my weight was off my harness.

I felt bad having deprived Daniel of the more enjoyable pitches, and I knew it had been his intention to lead all of the pitches. Therefore I proposed that he take over again, which he did cheerfully. Pitch 10 was actually more difficult, so it was just as well that the better of us was in the lead. We finished the route at 2:30 PM, struck by the beauty of the hot sun on the orange rock, thrilled with our accomplishment, and full of bravado for having bivied in slings without bitching. We were not particularly tired or even water-stressed, and we had most of our water supply for day three conserved for the descent.

The route is rock at its purest; it has no dirt, no vegetation, no sand, no nothing. (The only "dirty" substance is the guano on the ledge of the same name, but to me it seems appropriate to dismiss its presence and think only of the pure nature of the route itself.) We scrambled a few moves to the summit, emerging atop the low angle slabs descending to the south. Actually, new frustrations arose immediately. We thought we would simply rappel those slabs (approximately two ropelengths) to the notch at the top of the Leaning Tower Chimney. Well, we thought we could lower the haulbag, but the thing would not slide down the slabs! The angle was too low, so we horsed around for a while getting down to the notch.

I then made two more mistakes as we headed down the chimney, which becomes a narrow gulley for most of its length. My first mistake was to carry the haulbag on my back. The first rappel in the chimney is free-hanging, and I foolish not to have lowered the bag with me; the second or third rappel also has a free-hanging section, and should have been done the same way. We then rappelled the rest of the gulley; we did not walk or climb, but we did a seemingly unending sequence of rappels, perhaps 12 or 15, with rappel slings at every single location. The gulley was as dirty as the climb was clean. My second mistake was in not recognizing that all the rappels (except for the first, maybe) were single rope rappels. Instead, rap after rap, I set them with two ropes. The ropes kept tangling, and we were never able to rap past the next anchor, which would always have been reached on a single rope. Of course it took much longer to coil, throw, untangle, set, and so on. Thinking back on it, I suspect that the double rope saga cost us almost 2 hours in the descent. Anyway, we descended the gulley the whole way on these short rappels, and touched the slope at the base of the gulley at exactly 9 PM, at which time it was dark, of course. We were flashed-at by people on Ahwahnee ledge. We later learned from Heidi that it was she and Luke, and that the postponement of their climb had not been ruinous to them. We also learned that Pitch 7 had taken her 7 hours!

The talus slope had been relatively easy to descend in daylight, but it was a major struggle in the dark, with heavy packs. We had headlamps, of course, but one could not "pick out" the preferred line through each jumble of large boulders. It was painful, tiring, and uncomfortable. Daniel was inclined to bivy and complete our hike out the next morning, but I lied to him, telling him we were only 1/2 hour away from the parking lot. Instead, it seemed endless, and we reached the parking lot exactly at midnight! Daniel and I celebrated by sharing water which I had placed in the car for that purpose, and we then swung my a vending machine for a soda. We staggered into Camp 4, where we had been crashing in a tent on the SAR site belonging to someone else. The tent was not standing (it had been blown over while we were away) so we just crashed on the spot, and had no trouble sleeping.

We certainly found the route to be straightforward in its configuration as of August 1996. Every anchor was fixed, with bolts sufficient in number, size, and (new) appearance to inspire full confidence. Bolts, rivets, and heads were present wherever needed, although one must carry some hangers. Pitches 5 and 9 had tons of fixed gear, although (notably) pitch 7 did not. There was a fixed rope at the end of pitch 4 to Ahwahnee ledge, and there were slings hanging at all spots where one would lower-out. The Wall-Hauler made life easier, and Daniel was able to spend long days leading with a full-on aid rack hanging from a BD Zodiac gear harness, which seems a bargain at the price. We were comforted by our decision to carry a generous water ration, and on this route the hauling was not a problem.

I realize how fortunate I am to have shared this with a partner, a young man who happens to be my son, and I hope that other climbers can do likewise with their sons and daughters. Altogether Daniel and I have done more than 50 big wall pitches, all before his fifteenth birthday! Next summer we have plans for more walls, with proportionately greater ambitions. I fully expect that one day, probably soon, I will no longer be his first choice as a climbing partner, but I am thankful for everything we do together, and for memories which will always be a highlight in my life.

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