Schooled on the Column

Schooled on the Column
Trip Report, May 31 to June 3, 2007
With Karl “Baba” Bralich – my first excursion into the big-wall world

Click a picture to see a larger view.

All pictures ©  by Karl Bralich,

Arrival – Wednesday May 30th

I am reading “Big Walls” on the plane.

Over the last few years I have read Long and Middendorf’s book from cover to cover many times.  At first, it was simply curiosity: what do those crazy people get up to?  Then curiosity gave rise to fascination, fascination to temptation.  A couple of practice aid pitches.  A plan last year that had to be called off at the last minute, with regret but also with a secret feeling of relief.  And now I am headed to Yosemite with a duffel full of aid gear and a plan to attempt the Prow on Washington Column.

What do I want out of this trip? Bragging rights? Adrenaline highs? I don’t think so. It’s a more personal thing – about pushing myself to try something where I don’t yet feel secure or comfortable, almost in the same way that (as a mathematician) I would test a conjecture with all the extreme cases I could think of. It’s about (this is like mathematics too) working on something that its huge, and yet very intricate and methodical, combining fear and focus, inspiration and calculation.

I tell Karl that if there is a choice between topping out or my getting fully involved with the wall, I want the second.

Freshman – Thursday May 31st

The big red pack looks sturdy and carries the North Face logo, but some of the construction seems a little shoddier than one might expect. In fact, Karl confesses, it is a cheap copy he picked up in New Delhi for the equivalent of six bucks. Its limitations become apparent as we head away from the parking lot. The Ahwahnee is still within sight when there is a sharp ping and the waistbelt buckle breaks. Without the waistbelt I can just stagger on, hunched over and painful; the alternative is to tie it off as tight as possible (painful too) and hope for the best. We continue. Soon we leave the level trail to Mirror Lake and head up the talus. Scrambling among the big boulders is hard with 90 misbehaving pounds to look after. At one point I make a vigorous step and with another loud ping one shoulder strap is dangling uselessly. The sudden change of weight nearly throws me off balance but fortunately I can regain equilibrium enough to stumble to the next boulder and dump the wretched pack – except “dump” is the wrong word for something that is now securely tied to my waist. I begin to wonder whether we shall make it to the base of our route, let alone the top. Still, we do, even though the other shoulder strap blows out as Karl carries the bag up the final 4th class section to the base.

It is clear that the Prow is going to be crowded. The party of three we met in the Ahwahnee lot is just starting up, there is a soloist up higher, maybe this is not the time. On the other hand, no-one is on the South Face. We plan to head up to Dinner Ledge and choose between route possibilities from there. So, a brief snack and Karl leads off on pitch 1 of the South Face, mostly lower angle, free climbing stuff. I flounder about on jugs for a while before I remember how this is supposed to work, and try to help the bag along. A portaledge, destined not to be used, hangs below the bag and makes hauling complicated.

After a short stroll to the left I am on lead!  Although I have not done any aid for a while it does not take too long for the basic idea to come back, though I’m sure I climb far too slowly and place too much gear.  The pitch is A1, but it’s all A1 until you fall.  I wonder what a fall on aid would feel like.  The situation feels quite secure until you come off, like climbing a snow slope which suddenly gives way.  At least when I’m free climbing I can tell when I’m going to fall.

But there’s no chance to practice falling on this pitch – things go smoothly on brass nuts and small cams to a solid-looking three bolt anchor. Now it is time to set up the haul! Can I remember what to do? Fortunately it isn’t hard to rig the haul pulley on two equalized chains and start cranking the bag up. It goes quite smoothly until it hangs up on a small roof just a few feet below the belay. A bit of jiggling and help from Karl jugging below frees it up and allows us to bring the bag to a sensible position and tie it off. My pace on pitch 2 has not been speedy; it is now after 6 p.m.

Karl blasts up the third pitch to Dinner Ledge. It takes a little work to help the haulbag to follow – it seems determined to hang up on the way. But eventually we arrive and find ourselves sharing the ledge with a soloist who is sadly on the way down after hurting his knee in a fall on pitch 2, the same pitch that I have just led!  He continued up to Dinner hoping that things would heal up, but they’re not going to and now he is headed down.  That’s an example of self reliance…  Later we meet Robin and Nate, a couple who have been fixing above the Kor Roof and rap down to join us in the fading light. The ledge is spacious and there is ample room for all.

Sophomore – Friday June 1st

“You can lead the roof”, says Karl.  I can see that he took my at my word about what I wanted out of this trip.  Even though his next comment, “it will take you forever”, proves all too accurate! Actually even getting to the roof seems to take a good chunk of time. The pitch starts with a ramp to a bolt which is climbed free at 5.6.  I whimper up this in my approach shoes – there is no better way of putting it.  The psychology of aid and free climbing seem quite different, and I find it hard to transition between them.  Above there’s a brass nut and then “5.8 face move or C1F”. I don’t see anything that will go at 5.8 and the fixed gear, whatever it was, has long departed. However there is a flared slot which nicely accepts a red/yellow Hybrid Alien. Stepping high on this placement I can reach the first roof bolt, and from there on it is a matter of swinging over three more bolts to reach the lip.  If there is a place to be scared, this would be it, but all I feel is exhilaration. What a privilege to be in this extraordinary situation!

The fear comes later.  There is an intermediate belay station at about the 110-foot mark, and as I approach this I am feeling very tired.  I glance over at Half Dome and see what look to my overheated imagination like storm clouds boiling up.  Suddenly, abruptly, motivation runs dry.  I belay at the intermediate station and Karl comes up to finish the pitch.

However, my education for the day is not finished. I go on lead again for pitch 5 (C1+), which starts by turning a little roof via two bolts and then traverses left under another roof.  At the end of this is something new – a pendulum. I ask Karl to lower me ten feet and make a run for it, trying to imitate the movies I’ve seen of this maneuver. Hallelujah! I grabbed the mantle ledge. Unfortunately I can’t make the mantle with the sideways force of the rope and the smooth rock below, and I swing back. Several attempts follow, each time I learn a little more of the geography of the ledge I’m trying to reach. Below and to the left, there is a fine jug, I discover. I prepare a suitable cam on a long sling and, on my next attempt, get the cam stuffed in before strength gives out. Made it! Or have I?

My left leg is in an aider off the newly placed cam. I tell it to move, but there is no response.  My knee seems to have locked solid and I can’t bend my leg at all.  The belay bolts gleam, tantalizingly, fifteen feet overhead.  What can I do?  I have to work my own way out of this situation.    Searching around on my harness I find a hook, and set in on a tiny edge about a foot above the mantle ledge. It holds! I get my right foot in an aider off the hook.  Finally I can take the weight off my left leg and struggle up to the mantle ledge.  Fortunately, once the pressure (or torsion) is removed from my left knee it unstiffens itself.    A few easy aid moves and I am at the anchors and fixing the rope. We leave the ropes fixed here and rap down to Dinner Ledge. Amazingly, we have the whole place to ourselves (though there is a party on the “Penthouse” a few feet above us).

It’s very alarming when my body does not do what I tell it to (something that has happened to me once before, climbing Conn’s East at Seneca).   But perhaps it is even more mysterious that it usually does!

Junior – Saturday June 2nd

We eat a leisurely breakfast of bagel, cream cheese, and fruit, allowing the party above us plenty of time to get started jugging the two pitches of Southern Man that they have fixed off the ledge. I don’t really understand how the caloric balance works on the wall. By my reckoning I eat less here than I do when I’m working my day job behind a desk – and Karl eats less than I do. So where does his energy come from? Nuclear fusion? Maybe the solution to the oil crisis is closer than we realize…

I jug to the belay at the top of 5. Until now I have forgotten to mention the evil belay seat, just another lump of metal that we hauled up with us. This thing hangs from the back of my harness, blowing around in the wind which is quite strong today, and regularly whacking the back of my shins when least expected. I couldn’t even find a comfortable way to sit on it. If we’d left it and the portaledge behind we could have brought a decent amount of beer with us and still saved weight. Live and learn…

I fix the lines and Karl jugs up and leads off on 6. The belay transition involves a fair bit of futzing around. This is something I need to work on, getting these changeovers cleaner and quicker. Pitch 6 involves more leftwards traversing in a corner and it obviously is going to be “interesting” to clean. The wind gets up some more and by the time Karl reaches the top of the corner I am shivering. Fortunately I have him on a Grigri so it is not hard to put a knot in the rope, get my wind jacket on, and put him back on belay. He makes a few rightwards free moves and disappears from sight. Cleaning the traverse is fun. I clip over the pieces with both jumars (safeguarded by the Grigri) and reach over to pull them out. In one place a third daisy clipped directly into the next piece was very useful. I have a Metolius PAS on my harness as well as the two adjustable daisies and there are a couple of times when it comes in very handy. The last piece before the free is also a little tricky to clean (leaning left instead of right though).

Pitch 7 is the “all time nut pitch” and it is my lead again. I am scared but ready to go. The pitch takes good gear – cams, brass nuts, one fixed pin – just above the fixed pin I lower to backclean and jumar back up to the high point. Just below the mid-pitch bolt (at about the 90ft line) things start getting trickier. The next ‘obvious’ placement is full of a hammered blob of metal, just recognizable as having once been a nut, with a few wisps of useless webbing protruding from it. A high step and look left reveals a shallow crack in a corner with a possible cam placement. A blue alien pulls while testing, but the green/blue hybrid holds and lets me stand up and place a good nut. From here it is 5.7 free climbing to the bolt.

The free moves are really easy, especially since someone has kindly left a sling on the bolt, but I feel proud to make them in that exposed location in wall shoes. A couple more free moves lead left to a ledge. I traverse carefully onto the ledge and look for the continuation of the route. Ah – this looks like it – a nice clean crack, wide enough at the base for a yellow Camalot, tapering above. I set off – one nut, two nuts, this looks as though it is getting THIN! In fact, it looks as though it fades out in 20 feet or so! Can this really be the C1 route? Believing that things will be obvious, I foolishly had not brought the topo sheet.

In fact, I think I was climbing the vanishing crack above belay 6 of Southern Man. But three placements up I decided enough was enough. Time for some down aiding practice, which goes smoothly enough and brings me back to the ledge, then to the bolt. I’ve had enough. I leave a locking biner on the bolt – booty for someone – and lower back to the belay, cleaning as I go. Moral (obvious): take the *** topo, or be ready for adventure!

The pitch has plenty of exposure but the only time I felt oppressed was at the belay ledge waiting to start. Once the climbing gets going it is simply exhilarating to be pasted on the wall, in this splitter crack in the middle of the face, way above the trees. Unroped exposure is a different matter for me. Dinner Ledge is luxurious enough to be provided with a bathroom, the little platform with the big tree, where the daily poop tube ritual can be carried out a reasonable distance from the other inhabitants. To get there is a barely 3rd class boulder hop, but it is above some impressive air. Every time I proceed with extreme caution, though at least I don’t ask for a belay more than once!

Senior – Sunday June 3rd

Pitch 7 is as far as we shall get on the South Face. I told Karl that my goal was to lead and learn, rather than to jug to the top, and he took me at my word. As we prepare to head down from Dinner Ledge, though, I have not had enough yet. I suggest that I might re-lead pitch 2 to see if my technique has got any better.

Unfortunately another party is already coming up pitch 2, so we have to abandon that idea, rapping straight from 3 to 1 and then from 1 to the ground. But the 10a first pitch of the Prow is free and Karl suggests that I lead that instead as my final exam. While he uses the rappel ropes to get the bag down the 4th class, I head up to the base of the Prow. A party above is rappelling and is likely to drop ropes on us, but otherwise everything is clear. I set an anchor and prepare to set off. Things are much smoother and faster today. I’m more confident about standing tall, getting some jams in to keep my balance while in the higher steps of the aiders.  I am very glad to be finishing our trip by putting into practice some of the things I’ve learned.

Pretty soon I am at the mid-pitch bolts. My speed has improved almost by a factor of 2 and is now, according to Karl, “within the margins of the acceptable”. I reckon this means that another doubling of speed would be no bad thing… From the bolts, rapping with two lines gets you all the way down the fourth class to the beginning of the walk out.

We walk out. Enough said.

Back to the car, we head for the Deli but can’t find a parking space. After climbing for a few days circling the parking lot breathing (and generating) fumes is not my idea of fun. We head to El Cap Bridge instead to swim. Tom Evans is stationed at the bridge with his cameras as is Ottawa Doug (a.k.a. Climber 46) who offers us beer and chips. A bunch of other climbers stop by. This is why we passed up the deli… After beer and conversation and the bitingly cold waters of the Merced, the drive back to Wawona requires some concentration (on my part – Karl is asleep) but we make it in one piece.

I can see that this could be addictive…

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