Washington Column, South Face

By: Michael A. Esparza | Climbers: Michael Esparza, Steve Purcell |Trip Dates: September, 1998

Photo: Josh Smith

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It had been at least 12 hours since I had my last sip of water - literally a sip. I was stumbling toward the North Dome Gully descent where Steve Purcell, my partner, was finally seen about 5 minutes ahead. I was emotionally and physically drained, the worse I had ever felt in the 100 plus degree heat we encountered the last two days. No one was on the Column this time of year - at least no smart individual. We had seen a party the night we started but they were backing out due to the heat. Hours later would find us at the safe haven of a water fountain.

It had all started about three months earlier when I did my first wall - West Face of Leaning Tower, which hooked me like a crack addict in Compton. My buddy Steve and I had been talking about doing Southern Man for the last month and we finally set a date. Steve had been climbing for many years and had already had a successful climb on El Cap. along with some other walls in Washington and the Valley.

Fortunately we found a spot to park our vehicle in the Ahwahnee Inn parking lot. Wait a minute, was I in Yosemite? What are all these people doing walking around in real nice clothes and driving real nice cars? Reminds me of a Parking lot in Beverly Hills; something did not seem right. We emerged out of the truck, baked out of our minds and started to organize gear. All of a sudden I felt like O.J. after being released from jail - people surrounded us like reporters and began interrogating us with questions like where do you sleep up there? What if you have to poop? Does your back hurt when you climb with that big white thing on you back? Etc., etc., etc. I kind of felt as if I were a movie star. Then it set in. Why are these people, who have no idea what it takes to get up there, asking us all of these questions? Steve and I started to feel more and more baked and started laughing while this crowd of people surrounded us. We commented to each other about how unworthy we were to have the crowd we had. We deliberated over how much water to bring and decided on only 2 gallons each; besides, time was in the evening and it was nice and pleasant outside. We finally headed out with our bags packed.

An hour later found us at the base of the climb. Darkness was approaching and I led the first 5.8 pitch which was rather easy. On top, there were two climbers whom were bailing due to the heat. "What heat," it was perfect outside, did not even need a sleeping bag (we brought only one). We slept on a nice ledge on top of the first pitch. The following morning, after a nice wholesome breakfast of Powerbars and beef jerky, found Steve leading pitch 2 which seemed to be a rather easy pitch of A1. I got the third pitch which went easy free at 5.8. We were now at Dinner ledge and the haul was a bitch. We headed a little higher to Brunch ledge which was just enough room for two climbers and their hookers. We ate some food, pounded some water and sweltered in some indescribable heat. It must of been around noon and the temperature was sure to be near 100 degrees. I have been in some uncomfortable conditions as far as weather is concerned: No bivy pad on Liberty Ridge, no bivy gear coming off of Mt. Shuksan and several freezing nights in the Sierras. I thought those times were bad! They weren't shit. I was baking my ass off with no shade whatsoever as Steve lead the fourth A2 pitch (Southern Man) off of Brunch. He would later inform me that he looked down on me at Brunch and noticed the most uncomfortable facial expressions.

"You look like a piece of bacon frying on a pan,"

"Try more like a lobster being boiled for diner"

He moved up this pitch slowly, doing several cam hook moves in a row and not using any of the steel we brought up for the upper pitches. He reached the belay and I was grateful to finally be able to move in the upward direction.

We decided to fix two pitches above Brunch and finish the following day. I jugged up four and prepared to lead pitch 5 which was straight forward A1 climbing - Let me repeat that - the climbing was straight forward, not my psyche and not my body. I was being roasted alive! I remember reading somewhere that wall climbing is like being dragged down asphalt for several thousand feet. I felt like I was on freshly poured asphalt. I drank up water and made each aid move as if I were climbing at 14,000 feet or something. Although I did not feel well, I kept my cool (HAHAHA) and remained enthusiastic. Finally, the top of pitch 5. I set an anchor and rappelled down to Steve at 4 and then back down to Brunch. We were both worked with no one in sight to share our miseries with (Thank God since my wife is the only one who witnesses my miseries). It was still light when we arrived at Brunch. We ate, drank our dwindling water supply and complained about leaving our herb in the truck and how great it would feel to loaf in the Merced River down below. Looking down at that river reminded me of a Vegas strip bar: It is right in front of your face and all you can do is stare and drool at the marvelous beauty (the water). NO TOUCHING!

I woke first the following morning. We ate and contemplated our limited water supply. We probably had two quarts each for the rest of the climb and back down - one full day in sweltering heat. We said "screw it" and started jugging and hauling back up to the top of pitch 5. It was now my lead on pitch 6. I grabbed the pins and headed left to find out where this next pitch of Southern Man was. I looked and could not find what I was looking for. Wait a moment, where is my topo. In a rush to leave the LA area, we had somehow forgot to photocopy the route. So here I am, confused over the options. I yell to Steve and explain that it looked rather meager to the left and the only thing that looked doable was the crack that I am on. To this day, I do not know where I got off route. The crack ended up being the sixth pitch of The South Face route which went at A1. There was no point in bitching and being upset with myself any longer. I was hot and ready to get the hell down! Up I went to the top of the pitch falling twice on aid when a stopper blew followed by a yellow TCU. I only fell about 8 feet and it felt rather good. At the top of six, I guzzled down some water and waited for Steve to jug up. He arrived and swigged some water and aided/freed up pitch 7 which was 5.9-5.8. This brought Steve to a chimney alcove which sheltered him from the heat. For some reason he reminded me of a vampire trying to dodge the sun.

The rack was swapped and I groveled up the 5.7 chimney which seemed incredibly hard. I reached a bolt about 50 feet up in complete exhaustion and had Steve come up since the chimney worked me. I had no idea where to go or how much farther up the next belay was, no topo, no water, no way! Steve arrived and I had a sip of water and he headed up to finish the end of the pitch which turned out to be easy A1. I jugged the short 40 feet or so and prepared for pitch 8.

The sun was now starting to set in the west as well as the temperature,(finally since my lips felt like crust). I head up 8 to find a somewhat sketchy 5.8 traverse to the left underneath a block. This shot straight to a tree where I belayed. The haul was a grunt. When Steve arrived, we went over our inventory and found we had a quart of water left for the rest of the climb. So here we are, completely exhausted, knowing an epic is going to take place and unable to eat since our food consisted primarily of powerbars (need water to wash down) and other crap you would only eat in a Turkish jail. It was now dark and Steve headed up the last pitch of the climb using almost all of the 200 ft rope. This area of the climb is choss central and could cause serious damage to any climbers below. He arrived at the tree and I shortly followed.

Finally, flat ground. It is about 10 p.m. and we are pretty much dead: a quart of water left, no idea on how to get down the North Dome Gully Descent at night and just enough room for two people to sleep. We dealt with what we had and crashed out too damn close to each other. I guess a wall or alpine climb is the only place two guys could get away with such a thing. We awoke around 6 a.m. or so feeling like we had had sand in our mouth. I felt like puking since my throat had no lube. We sipped our last bits of water and headed to the gully.

We moved rather slow even though the temperature still had a faint chill of morning. After about 45 minutes, I found myself at the beginning of the gully before slipping and sliding like a drunk. By this time the temperature had increased and started taking a major toll on me, especially with a pack full of gear. A moment later I reached Steve doing one of the most disgusting things I had ever seen. There he was drinking out of a mossy, silty, dirty, bug infested mini-swamp he had made. Apparently there was some water seeping out of a crack and he made a makeshift dam to collect water (pretty ingenious). My eyes lit up and I pushed him aside so I could get some. We stayed there for about 30 minutes drinking away and trying to figure which one of us would end up in the hospital first. We later contemplated on how we fucked up by not taking the time to take a picture of each other sucking out of the dreaded swamp. About an hour later we had reached the pavement of the bike trail. I staggered along as people rode by me on their bikes drinking water and totally ignoring my presence as if I were some homeless guy on the streets of Los Angeles. Little did they know that I had just done one of the most Richter things of my pathetic life!

There he was, pouring water over his head and drinking like a mad man. I had finally arrived at the campground east of the parking lot to find Steve in Nirvana. I shortly followed by pouring ice cold water over my head from a fountain. I drank and finally felt some bliss, some meaning, although I did not know what it all meant. Moans of relief poured out of us as if we were just discovering sex for the first time. People stared in amazement. We trotted off to the truck feeling revitalized.

After the famous Yosemite chicken sandwich and a large coke, we chugged some beers and finished our herbal refreshment. We laughed about what we had just been through and felt an instant obsession for doing more. We packed up and drove back home to reenter reality. What a drag this was.