Leaning Tower: Two trip reports from John Dalbey

First trip (Sep '91)

The inspiration came from reading the story of the first ascent of Leaning Tower in "Vertical World of Yosemite." The writing made the climb seem so dramatic, I felt compelled to climb it and see what it would be like to live for several days in the "realm of the overhang."

I met Greg in the Valley, who was interested but lacked any aid experience. Then I ran into Tom, another acquaintance who had done Half Dome. So we decided to make it a threesome, with Tom and I doing the leading, and Greg playing jug-man. Both Tom and Greg are likable, easy going fellows whom I thought would make good companions on a wall.

It rained the night before we started, and we got a late start hemming and hawing about the overcast. I kept saying "LET it rain, the wall is OVERHANGING. Let's go." But my partners were slow to be convinced. Eventually we got underway, but hours later than I would have liked.

The climbing is not very interesting on the first day. But I had a gas just hanging out on a thoroughly overhanging wall. Although we later heard reports that it drizzled off and on, we never felt a drop. The views are great, because you start climbing from about halfway up the wall. So even on the first pitch the exposure is incredible.

We combined the second and third pitches into one 155' pitch. I lead the fourth pitch and found the hook moves very fun, and much easier than I had anticipated. (I'd been practicing on boulders, using VERY marginal hook placements. The big flakes on fourth pitch seemed gigantic by comparison.) By now it was late afternoon however, and the sun had come out, and I got pretty dehydrated. When the haul bag finally arrived at Ahwanhee Ledge, I drank too much water too quickly and became nauseous. I felt sick for a couple of hours while my partners set up housekeeping on the amazing ledge. Finally I upchucked and immediately felt much relieved. We had a very comfortable bivy on the spacious ledge.

Our late start on day 1 meant we hadn't fixed any pitches above the Ahwanhee, so we would have to jam to make it to the summit today. By 1 or 2 pm it was clear we were moving too slow to reach the top. Greg was doing extremely well for his first wall, but our rope management for a team of three was not super efficient. However, we hadn't commited any time-wasting mistakes, and we were really enjoying ourselves. We were making steady progress, just not speedy progress. The wall had been in the shade much of the day, so we had conserved water and had enough to last another night. We decided to alter our schedule and bivy at the top of pitch 9 where I recalled the first ascent party had spent a night.

At the top of the 7th pitch Greg and I prepared the hauling system and I shouted for Tom to cut the haul bag loose. I felt the weight of the haul bag come on the line, and as I started the first few leg hauls, I looked down. There was Tom, clipped securely in to the belay 120' below, but with NO ROPE! Somehow in arranging things at the belay he had untied himself (?!) and dropped his end of the line. The other end was tied to the bottom of the haul bag. But since the wall was overhanging, when he cut the bag loose, it had swung out and away from him, out of reach.

I couldn't believe my eyes. Wouldn't Tom have uttered some profanity as he dropped his rope? I sure would have. Was he unaware of his predicament?

"Tom," I shouted down. "Are you missing something?"

"Uhhhh, yeah," he replied, now clearly embarrassed. He looked like a school kid who wet his pants on the playground.

Lucky for Tom, it was not hard for me to set the haul bag to swinging by pulling the rope back and forth, and eventually getting a pendulum motion going. In a few moments the haul bag swung close enough that Tom could grab the rope.

The late afternoon sun was very pretty, setting the orange wall glowing with beautiful colors. I had only a brief pause to enjoy the scenery, as I needed to hurry to get everything prepared to lead the ninth pitch in the dark.

I had never lead aid in the dark before, even with my headlamp I though it might be difficult to see where to place pieces. As it turned out, the ninth pitch is almost ENTIRELY fixed, and proved no technical challenge at all. Again, it is severely overhanging, and I regretted that it was dark and I couldn't relish the exposure.

I had a big chuckle when I discovered how the "evil tree" on this pitch got its name. As you climb the overhang, above the tree, the ends of the dead branches point upwards into your back. Some maniac with a twisted sense of humor (and too much time on his hands) has whittled the branch ends into points. These ugly pongee sticks are just waiting to skewer you should some act of God toss you off the wall.

Climbing in the dark proved slow going, since you have to double check every clip with the headlamp. I was having a great time however, making my careful way up this black rock into the inky heights above. Without a doubt, only someone with the crazed vision of Mr. Batso Harding could have imagined a route up this inconceivable stone.

My batteries ran out halfway up, and we had to shuttle a headlamp up and down, further slowing us down. It must have been at least 1 a.m. before all three of us arrived at the tilted ledge at the ninth belay. We were really exhausted, yet dizzily happy with the climbing. We were giggling at our situation, quite safe yet entirely improbable. I was in a funny state of euphoria, probably from an endorphin high. Kind of punch drunk. I was working at the hauling rig, pretty much on automatic pilot. The repetitive motions of hauling had lulled me into a stupor. The headlamps had been turned off to save batteries, so I grunted away in pitch blackness. I was so spaced that I had temporarily forgotten why I was doing this, what the purpose was of my sweaty exertions. I felt a bit like Sisyphus, my whole universe was composed of these few simple, repeated movements, bursts of energy required to pull on the haul line. My trance was interrupted at one point when the line wouldn't pull anymore, as though it had snagged on something. I turned on the headlamp and peered over the edge to see what was happening, and was totally astonished to see a haul bag next to my feet, at the lip of the ledge. "A haul bag," I thought, "what's that thing doing here?"

In a flash of twisted, sleep starved logic, I started shouting at the top of my lungs. "The pig, the pig! It's following us! The pig is following us! Ohmygod, it's following us!" I must have sounded like a madman, because my companions burst out laughing. "Oh no," they chimed in, "there's no escape!" Below on Ahwanhee Ledge, another party turned on headlamps and shined them up at us. No doubt from all the blood curdling yells, they must have thought that a gruesome accident had occurred. We shouted down that we were all fine and settled in for the night.

The next morning we packed and let Greg lead the last pitch to the summit. I stayed behind as jug-man. Without a doubt this was the wildest jumar of my life. As I cut loose from the ledge, I gently swung out from the wall into free space and looked straight down to where we had started two days before. I uttered a brief prayer that my partners had solidly anchored the rope, and began my upward journey. There is one moment at the top of the pitch, just before stepping onto the ledge, that remains frozen in my mind. I looked down one last time, and could see the entire 1200' expanse of magnificent wall that we had labored up.

Big wall climbing lacks the esthetics of free climbing, but it sure takes you to some incredible places. The Leaning Tower doesn't have a lot of quality climbing, nor is it challenging from a technical point of view. However, it is certainly a unique experience. And it's fun to climb a route which has such a colorful history. I'd recommend it especially for less experienced (or beginner) aid climbers who want to get their socks knocked off with out-of-this world exposure. 

Overwhelmed by the Overhang - a big wall epic (Summer '93)

I thought the Leaning Tower in Yosemite Valley would be easier the second time. The first time was a lot of fun, just kind of slow. I was hoping to be faster this time. Instead, it turned out to be the most arduous and horrifying climb I've ever done.

It was Ray's first big wall, but since I had done this climb before, I thought we would cruise it. I assumed my knowledge of the route would make up for his lack of experience. This turned out to be a completely invalid assumption.

The first day went fine. Ray lead the first pitch just great. He was slow cleaning the second pitch, as he struggled to work out the tricks for jumarring overhangs and traverses. He got faster as the day wore on, and we reached the bivy ledge and had a comfortable and enjoyable night.
Ray still smiling early in the climb
Ray Belaying on Leaning Tower

The second day Ray started us off by leading pitch 5. The exposure spooked him a bit, and he had trouble learning to trust his placements, and the line was very traversing, so it was a very time consuming lead. It took us most of the morning.

We had heard rumors about pitch 6. Someone in Camp 4 told us that the previous week two bolts had blown out on a climber in the middle of the bolt ladder. We decided to bring a cheater stick along as insurance, to reach past the missing bolts. As I began to lead pitch 6, we discovered that the rumors were true -- two successive bolts were missing from the bolt ladder. To our dismay, our "cheater stick" was way too short. We were at an impasse.

It appeared that some other party had found themselves in a similar position and bailed, because there was a sling hanging from the last intact bolt, and another sling on a stopper behind a bulge above. I definitely did not want to retreat down 5 pitches of overhang. (We later found out that the party who bailed took a day and a half to retreat!)

I was very motivated to find an alternate route. One option which first appeared was to lower about 10 feet and swing left a bit to the top of some big flakes. Hand traversing left on these flakes looked like it would lead to a very incipient crack which went upward to rejoin the original route. I had no trouble attaining the flake, but it sounded insecure when I tapped it. I put a #3 friend behind the top of the flake and decided to apply body weight experimentally. As I stepped in my aiders, the flake gave a loud creak -- as the cams expanded they started to lever the flake off the wall! Alarmed, I gave a shout and jumped out of the aiders, falling on the rope and my partner's waiting belay. Considering the scene, it appeared that this 30 foot high flake was in danger of peeling off, and I looked down and saw two parties of climbers below us who would be scraped clean off the wall if the flake were to cut loose.

Looking around for other possibilities, I considered the bulge above, behind which the bailout stopper was placed. Perhaps I could surmount this bulge somehow, and then a diagonaling corner above might yield some opportunity. So I regained my high point, clipped into the stopper which the previous party had rappelled from, and stepped into my aider. Pow, I was airborne. My partner caught me quickly, and I stared in disbelief at the stopper which had pulled out. It had somehow pulled through the rock, not just outward. The only way I could conceive of this happening was if the bulge of rock was itself loose. (The party which bailed on that stopper must have been regular churchgoers -- clearly they had divine protection the day they rappeled). I decided to scratch this alternative off the list.

Turning my attention back to the big loose flakes on my left, I speculated that I could perhaps take a big pendulum across to the far side of the flakes. There was some broken up chunks that looked not too solid, but worth checking out. My partner lowered me about 25 feet and I started running back and forth. With a final lunge I grabbed the left side of the flake, and snagged a Fish hook around it to hold me in place. Proceeding very cautiously, I found skyhook placements on the edges of the flake and over broken chunks of rock. The rock was all loose and moved when I tapped it, but I prayed that as long as I pulled down and not out, they would stay in place. I moved as delicately as possible, nervous tension mounting with every step.

After several hook moves and a pitiful RP placement I reached the base of the incipient vertical crack I had spied. It was very thin at the base, but appeared to get better higher up, and eventually lead to the belay bolts at the top of the original bolt ladder. I hammered a knifeblade piton in partway and tied it off. Standing on it I fiddled in a tiny steel nut. I was taking long pauses between each placement as I considered my situation. I doubted that any of the pieces I placed would stop a fall. If any of them pulled, I was going to take a king size pendulum-whipper. It took a great amount of courage for me to collect myself, calm my jittering nerves, and very delicately stand up on the tiny steel nut.
Cleaning the early pitches
Cleaning the early pitches

Two more body weight only placements and I was committed. There was no going down now, except by the express ride. Fortunately, the crack was getting more defined and wider as I worked up higher. Fifteen feet above the knifeblade, I finally got in a wired stopper that looked really solid. Breathing a big sigh of relief I told Ray he could relax -- I was back to A1. "That was the wildest aiding I've ever done," I explained. After a couple more nut placements I reached the belay station on the original route. It was a hanging belay, but the big, shiny, new 3/8" bolts looked so beautiful it was a joy to clip them.

As Ray cleaned the pitch, I began to unwind a bit. I was delighted to finish the pitch, it meant we wouldn't have to retreat. To further boost my ego I told myself I found a way around this section of the climb that even Warren Harding, on the first ascent, had not seen and resorted to a bolt ladder.

Unfortunately, my time consuming efforts had put us way behind schedule. I finished the next pitch as the sun went down, and Ray began cleaning in the remaining twilight. I could hear his exertions below me, panting and groaning at the strenuous nature of jugging an overhanging line and fighting to get out stuck stoppers. I lowered him a headlamp so he could see better. When he was about halfway up, I had him clip in to the lowered haul line, and I "hauled" as he jugged. I couldn't really effect much of a pull, since we had no mechanical advantage in our hauling system. But I think just being clipped in to the extra line relieved some of his anxiety about jumaring an overhang in the dark. Still, the work was really demanding and I could tell Ray was hard put to persevere.

Finally, Ray arrived at the stance, really wasted, and as I helped him remove the heavy gear slings which had been trying to create permanent grooves in his shoulders, he started sobbing. "I don't know whether it's the pain, relief, or terror." he said as he leaned against the wall and buried his head in his arms.

After a few minutes rest and some water to drink, Ray had composed himself, and we evaluated our circumstances. The belay stance was a ledge about six inches deep and about 3 feet wide. You could stand if you turned your feet sideways. We were at the top of pitch 7 and considered trying to reach pitch 9 where I knew there was a sloping ledge big enough to lie on. But we decided in our exhausted state it might take us all night to get there. So we tied in securely, got our food and clothes out of the haul sack, ate, bundled up, and tried to sleep standing up. It was the most uncomfortable night out I'd ever spent. Amazingly we did get a bit of sleep, sort of catnaps in between shifting position to ease the pain of harnesses cutting off our circulation.
Ray jumaring (with real Jumars®)
Ray jugging

As soon as it was light we started climbing, two and a half pitches to go, but really low on water, sleep, and energy. We had only a pint of water each. The climbing went slowly, but uneventfully, and we summited about 3:30pm. Thankfully, a fast party caught up with us (thanks to us leaving a sling to get past the blown bolts) -- and they gave us a quart of water each. At the summit I was emotionally and physically drained, and we moved very slowly, rappelling down the descent gully. Ray was struggling valiantly with the haul bag, which threatened to roll him over on the 3rd class section. On the rappels, as Ray leaned back the haul bag straps tried to rip off his shoulders. It got dark on us two pitches from the ground. Ray was really beat, suffering under the mass of the pack. He was so far gone he couldn't even make simple routefinding decisions any longer. I descended first, moving by headlamp, giving directions to Ray over my shoulder, and setting up the rap stations.

The last rappel station was a bush with a bolt in the wall backing it up. The wall dropped away steeply to the ground. As Ray joined me he asked "Aren't you clipped in?" "No, I'm okay." I replied. In retrospect, I should have clipped in. At the time I was so focused on getting Ray down quickly that I was rather careless with my own safety.

I rapidly threw a sling around the bush and clipped in the ropes with two oval biners. I sent Ray down first so I could inspect his rappel brake with the headlamp before he departed. The rappel was vertical, and as he descended he was moaning in pain from the haul bag straps cutting into his shoulders. The extra weight of the haul bag caused him to descend faster than he wanted, and he watched his prussik safety knot heat up and start to smoke as it slid down the rappel lines. Half way down he shouted

"Are you sure the ropes reach?"

"Pretty sure" I replied. On my previous trip down this gully I had gone further before rappelling, but I recalled seeing another party rapping down from this spot. Even if my memory was faulty, there were rap slings and a bolt backing up the tree we anchored to, it was obviously well used. The ropes must reach the ground, I reasoned to myself.

I could hear Ray's agonizing cries and sympathized with him rapping down into the unknown, in the dark, without a headlamp, not even knowing if your ropes are down. Suddenly I heard him shout,

"I'm at the end, the ropes don't reach the ground!"

I thought there must be a mistake, we just needed a minute to sort things out. Perhaps this wasn't the last rappel station. Unfortunately it was so dark that an anchor chain could be right in front of his face and he wouldn't see it. Damn, I should have let him carry the headlamp.

"Hang from your prussik," I shouted down. I don't know if he heard me, he was groaning and crying with the effort of trying to hold on. Without a headlamp he couldn't see how far up he was. On a dead vertical wall the pain of the haul bag must be excruciating and it would be only a moment before his strength failed him. There was a brief pause, then I heard the terrified cry of "I'm falling!" and I saw all the tension go out of the ropes.

There was a muffled "thump," then silence.

Horrified, I thought, "Oh god, I've killed the poor bastard." Part of my brain refused to believe it, I was certain the ropes reached the ground, this couldn't be happening. Why didn't his prussik knot catch him? After a moment I heard Ray call weakly "I'm okay." He sounded stunned, but unhurt.

Now I was frantic to get down. One of our ropes was a 180 feet long, the other 165 feet, so I adjusted the rappel setup until both ends touched the ground, then I started down. I knew I was going to have to pass the rope joining knot through my rappel device, so I decided it would be faster to just body rappel the first 20' until I got past the knot, then hang by my prussik and attach my rappel brake. As soon as I started to body rappel, the rope slid off my shirt and across my bare neck and I got a painful rope burn. I got my rappel brake set, but then my prussik got jammed. As I tried to unweight the knot I knocked my headlamp off.

"Argh" I cried out in frustration as the lamp went sailing into the blackness. Ray heard my shout and didn't realize I was on rappel, he thought I was still at the last stance, not clipped to anything. When he heard something falling down the cliff he thought it was me falling from the ledge. He had a moment of panic until the headlamp crashed into the dirt beside him. Then he called up if I was all right.

"Yes, I just jammed my prussik. I'm okay." Moving carefully, I had to make these technical knot passing manipulations in the dark. I eventually got things straightened out, and reached the bottom to find Ray unscathed. His strength had eventually failed and he let go of the ropes, and since we didn't tie a knot in the end, he slid off the ropes and fell about 15 feet and landed on his back on top of the haul bag. The bag cushioned the impact and he wasn't hurt at all.

"Christ, what an epic!" I exclaimed. "Let's get out of here," was all Ray had to say.

It was midnight. We were exhausted, dehydrated, and near collapse, mentally and physically. I was so tired I wanted to quit and fall asleep right there next to the cliff. But my parched throat convinced me I needed to get water. We still had an hour hike down the hill and over talus to get to the car. We just shucked our gear and let it drop in a heap at the base of the rappel, grabbed a jacket and Ray's headlamp, and started walking. The last two days had been really desperate, and we felt like escapees who had been pushed to our limits. Finally free from the vertical clutches of this granite monster, we stumbled downward through the trees and across the talus field, away from the looming darkness of the overhanging wall behind us.

 Photographs and story © Copyright 2005 by John Dalbey.  Please do not reproduce without permission.

JD's home page