It had been a year and a half since my last climb. Previously, I had spent six months in South America on a climbing rampage. I climbed difficult objectives that I once only could dream of. And then, all of a sudden, I just stopped climbing. I lost interest in the supertopo forums, deleted the mountain project and climbing weather apps off my phone, sold all my ice climbing gear and shoved my big wall rack deep into my closet. It’s difficult to tell what separated me from my passion. Was it fear of injury and death? Burn out? Or was I just developing other interests? Whatever the reason, I wasn’t climbing.
Over the past year and a half, it started to become clear that a part of my life was missing. Climbing is, was and will always be my freedom. When life burdens me with questions, I find the answers within myself in the mountains.
Last year I prepared for this climb, approached, sat at the base staring at the route and then walked away. The passion was gone and I didn’t wan’t to climb it. You can read about it here. But this year I felt different. I knew I couldn’t walk away again. This time I wanted it, I needed it.
Soloing big walls really comes down to knowing your rope management systems and having maximal endurance and strength. Most importantly, you have to want the climb more than anything. Or else it is easy to turn around.
How did I train for this climb? I didn’t. Well that’s not entirely correct. I just kept up with my normal conditioning. Running in the hills, squats, gym climbing and cycling. I kept in shape but the climb truly relied on muscle memory and all the previous experience I have had climbing big walls. My hope was when I arrived at the base, it would all come back to me; and it did!
Solo wall climbing is hard work. You not only have to climb each pitch, but then rappel down, ascend the ropes and remove your gear and then haul the bag. No wonder why very few people solo big walls. Most solo wall climbers share one of three traits. They are crazy, have no friends or enjoy suffering. I fall into two of those categories. Can you guess which ones?
I used two 70 m ropes which allowed me to link in pairs all the pitches on the route. I bought a custom cut 70 meter static haul line from a tree trimming company. The diamter of my ropes were 10.0mm and 11.1 mm. I prefer heavy ropes soloing especially since I know I’ll be beating them up.
Day 1: 13 Hours
Once I arrived at the base of leaning tower, I dumped down my 100 pound haul bag and took off searching for the start of the route. It was much higher up the approach than I expected. I set down my helmet and jacket at the start of the route and trekked back down to get my haul bag. About halfway down, I began having second thoughts about the climb. Was I prepared? Did I know what I was getting myself into? Would I finish it in time? I wanted to turn back, like I had before, except I realized something. I left my jacket and helmet at the start of the route; so I had to go back up anyway. I fell for my own mind trick! So I hurled my haul bag over my shoulders and hiked back up to the base of the route. The climbing and rope management systems all came back to me and I made it to Ahwahnee Ledge and fixed pitches 5 and 6 two hours before nightfall.
Day 2: 19 Hours
I woke up at 5:30 AM and choked down some breakfast. I started cleaning pitches five and six and blasted through seven and eight. Likely the two easiest pitches on the route. Then came nine and ten. For some reason my rope kept slipping out of the bag. I would be freeing sections with 140 meters of rope weighting my harness. So once I reached the pitch ten anchor, I pulled up the remaining line, made a prussic and attached it to the anchor and re-flaked the rope. Pitch ten was different than I had previously recalled. But I did remember on the exit move underneath the roof to place a green C3, that was a lifesaver. It fit perfectly in a mini notch, so there was no need to mantel the final move.
The climb was straight forward, but rappelling with a giant haul pack was tricky and dangerous. By the time I reached the base, I was exhausted. I had brought 10 liters of water and it was all gone. I had not eaten any dinner because I was trying to get off before dark and I was pretty thrashed from the entire day without a break. I had two choices. Bivy at the base, or hike off. Even though I was utterly exhausted, I did not want to descend the next morning. So I started to descend down.
I must have missed the trail slightly. Because I stepped in a pile of leaves. I sunk down with the mistep as the weight of my hall bag thrust me into a somersault and I started to roll down the hill. Gut instincts allowed me to “self arrest” the fall. I surveyed the damage. I had some scrapes, bumps and bruises but nothing severe. So I kept hiking downward over the loose boulder field. I mindlessly followed the cairns while progressing at a heinously slow pace. The haul pack dug into my open sores from the fall and squeezed my empty stomach. This was by far the most dangerous part of my climb. Towards the base, I lost the cairns and my orientation. I began hastily wandering through the forrest. Finally, I backtracked and found the parking lot. I went straight to the bear box where I had stashed a liter of water. I was too exhausted to find a hidden sleeping spot, so I plopped my sleeping bag down by the bathrooms and crashed. 19 hours straight!
The Morning After
I woke up, walked to my car and headed over to Curry Village for a shower and some hot food. I was so excited to finally get the dirt washed out and the belly fed. It felt so good!
I always tell myself that I will never solo another big wall again. This is usually while I am soloing the wall. Then I wait a few days afterwards and the motivation comes back. Climbing gives me inner peace. I feel like just a man in nature and that brings everything in balance. Climbing will always be a part of my life although the frequency is less than it used to be. I am still pretty stoked that I can still rise up to the challenges I set.