By David Hill
Eric and I had been talking about an appropriate way to spend my 25th birthday and we both agreed that climbing my first big wall would be a novel one. I had been climbing with Eric for about two and half years and his patience and climbing ability made and continue to make him an ideal partner. Add to that the two big walls already under his belt and and you can see why I felt so confident about the climb. The South Face of Washington Column seemed like an ideal route; short and clean, with mixed aid and free climbing. We planned a five day trip, allowing two days for the wall and several days for other short routes.
My training, if you will, for this climb consisted of a single pitch of aid climbing done at Joshua Tree in the middle of the night with a headlamp (why sleep when you can climb?). Additionally, a day was spent at Cragmont Rock in the Berkeley Hills learning how to jumar and haul.
We left for the valley on a Monday morning in the pouring rain. The closer we got to the park, the harder it rained, which did not bode well. Sure enough, as we pulled through the entrance, it was still coming down. Fortunately, Eric had been wise enough to suggest that we bring along out skiing gear so we drove straight to Badger Pass where it was dumping snow. What a perfect way to start a climbing trip. So we took off for Glacier Point, but the poor visibility and Gore-Tex saturating snow cut the effort a bit short. By the time we got back to the car, we were both pretty soaked and beat. Further, the trunk of our car was WIDE open, causing a moment of panic before we noted that all of our climbing gear seemed to be in place.
Getting down to the valley, it was STILL pouring rain, with a little lightning thrown in for fun. Setting up camp did not excite us, so we killed some time in the Curry Village Lodge (never again) and huddling on the porch of one of the cabins trying to cook dinner. Finally, the rain turned to heavy snow so at least we didn't get too soaked setting up camp!
Tuesday morning, we awoke to crystal clear skies, a few inches of snow on the ground, and the sounds of rescue choppers. Things were REALLY wet so we decided to put off the Column for another day and just spend the day on short climbs. We headed off to Church Bowl, where the only thing remotely dry was Church Bowl Tree. So we both aided the pitch and then toproped it. Very fun, definitely need to go back and try leading it...At that point we spoke with one of the rescue personnel. He said that they had pulled some people out of North Dome Gully and that they were doing a body recovery at the base of El Cap. Apparently a soloer fell off Z.M. Not exactly the things you want to hear when gearing up for a wall. So then it was off to Jamcrack (not another climber in sight, what a treat) and then to the base of the Column to check it out. A party of three was bailing as we got there since the skies looked questionable and they wished us luck.
Wednesday morning came and we started the approach early, but apparently not quite early enough. The hike is about 45 minutes with a lot of uphill and about five minutes from the top we spotted another haul bag with a gasping body attached to it. We strode by and ascertained that they were headed to the South Face as well. How's that for motivation? We beat them to the top and were about ready to lead the first pitch before the other party wheezed to the base. It turned out to be a good thing that we passed because they ended up climbing very slowly and ultimately bailing off of the climb.
I offered to lead the first pitch, as I was really psyched for the climb. In fact I was so excited I forgot how to free climb and did the 5.8 corner with something less than grace and style. The haul was a bear due to the low angle and Eric had to repeatedly kick the bag along. He took the second pitch up the 5.11 corner which turned out to be quite straightforward. The third pitch went quickly and we were up on Dinner Ledge just after noon. I was definitely having fun! As we were in NO hurry whatsoever, we had a leisurely, scenic lunch, reveling in the views of Half Dome and the rest of the valley dusted in snow.
We had brought three ropes, and were hoping to fix three pitches past Dinner, so as to shorten the second day. So after lunch, Eric fired up towards the Kor roof which is VERY cool looking. Some very subtle free moves brought him to the first bolt of the ladder. The wind was really beginning to howl and I thoroughly enjoyed watching Eric with his aiders whipping around his head like helicopted blades. He was probably not so amused as I. Anyway, he finally got to the belay with grace and style, as usual. We had gotten beta that it was much easier for the second to follow on belay, which is what I did. Now, I'm sure that my being a rookie at this contributed a great deal, but nonetheless, I found following the pitch to be VERY strenuous. This was likely enhanced by my possession of only a single set of aiders. As I finally pulled over the roof, gasping and wheezing, Eric zipped down a second set on the haul line...This greatly improved life. Arriving at the belay, I was gassed, but we were upward bound so after a short break, I led off on the A1/A2 supposedly crux pitch. The lead was an absolute breeze compared to following the 4th pitch!! The traverse is quite straightforward, with good placements to be had and the occasional fixed piece. Eventually the pitch heads upward and I had fun doing some thin nutting (like six placements in a row). Towards the end of the pitch, the rope drag was unreal and I was convinced I wasn't going to make it to the belay, but ultimately I did. It was getting dark by the time Eric arrived, so we rapped back down and broke out dinner. The other party was just beginning to lead the 4th pitch and I was NOT envious. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal watching the lights in the valley come on and, a bit later, a full moon rear its head over Half Dome. THAT was spectacular. Come to think of it, we could have finished off the climb that night, sans headlamps! We called it an early night and I fell into a coma-like sleep.
We got off early the next morning, jugging our lines up pitches 4 and 5. Eric started up 6, which was straight up A1 with a few free moves connecting cracks. Pitch 7 was 5.9 and 5.8 free climbing, but I couldn't figure out the first few jams so ended up aiding part of it. Oh well...The belay on top of 7 has a good sized block held in place by ONE 1/2S ratty sling which vibrated like a guitar string to the touch! Yikes. Pitch 8 was some subtle chimneying with some A1 at the end. Our beta said to run 9, 10, and 11 together with a 60m rope so thatUs how I headed off to finish the climb. The moves off of the belay are 10a (read: aid for me) over a bulge and then a traverse to easier ground. I was placing little pro above the bulge to avoid rope drag. And then, SCORE, a brand new .75 Camalot, ripe for the picking. It had walked in, but nothing a gear tool couldn't handle. I should mention that we also harvested 4 nuts, several biners, and some runners. Anyway, it made an appropriate birthday gift. Near the top of the climb, the rock turns horribly rotten as you finish out this 4th class gully. The rope drag at this point was getting serious and my last piece was WAY far below and I had visions of slipping on the crumbly granite. Ah well, I was soon at the top, with Eric arriving shortly thereafter.
At this point, it was 2:30, so we scrambled to the top and ate lunch with a killer view of Half Dome. It was indeed grand and I was thrilled to have climbed my first wall, a major goal of mine for a long time. After soaking up the sun and the views, and the last of the water in our day pack, we headed back down the rap route. All was going well until we rapped off of the top of 7. First of all, itUs a manky rappel, second, there are rope eating cracks right at the top. So I followed Eric down and as I anchored to the top of 6, I simultaneously pulled on blue and let go of the end of purple. And of course, blue stuck, while purple blew out of my reach. Groan....what a stupid mistake. Fortunately, the rap was a short one, so we anchored the rest of blue and I rapped down 25 feet or so until I could pendulumn over and snag purple. Jugging back up, I discovered that the ropes had jammed behind that stupid block. So beware...
The rest of the rappel was cake, but the descent left my legs quivering with effort and the whole affair was very nicely concluded with a pitcher of pale ale in the mountain bar. A great climb in great weather with a great friend and partner on your 25th birthday. Not too bad....
Sun, 21 Apr 96
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