Washington Column, South Face
By: Ron Heinsman | Climbers: Ron Heinsman, Rich Copeland |Trip Dates: July 20-23, 1999
Photo: Gary Clark
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Tuesday morning, July 20, 1999:
I'm up early, way too early. It's barely light in Woodland, but I've got to catch the train in Sacramento to Merced and then get the shuttle bus to Yosemite. I really didn't sleep too well last night. I was thinking too much and worrying about how sane I was. I've planned to do a big wall in Yosemite for the past four years; I've dreamed about it, worked out for it, lost weight for it, bought gear for it, but now that the time is here, the thought of it is a little intimidating. My attempts to find a partner haven't worked out, so I just decided to solo the South Face of Washington Column instead. I've told my wife I'll try to find a partner after I get there, but I'm not planning on that happening. Mentally I'm getting ready for a solo climb. I keep telling myself that all I need to do is to just start. After that I've only got to keep climbing and I will make it. I think my planning has been good. I've got the right gear, not too much, not too little. No need to worry.
After a quick shower, I wake Julie and we drive to the train station. It's just small talk as we roll along through early morning traffic. She drops me off. We kiss good-bye and she says, "Be safe." Yes, be safe. But I keep reminding myself that I am a safe climber and I typically don't make bad choices. It's just the fear talking; I'll be fine.
The train ride to Merced is casual. The shuttle bus is late, but I pass the time talking to a hiker who is headed for the Valley. He had planned to be on Denali, but bad weather has canceled his trip. So at the last minute he grabbed his gear and headed to Yosemite. He's from L.A., but this will be his first trip to Yosemite. It's hard for me to imagine being a Californian who hikes and has never been to Yosemite.
I'm off the bus and head for Curry Village. A quick check of the regular campgrounds confirms there are no sites available; big surprise. I grab a quick lunch and head for Camp 4. Surprisingly there are a few sites available at Camp 4. I wait with the others for the staff person to return from lunch. I get a site and drop off my stuff. A quick check of the bulletin board reveals there is someone looking for a partner for South Face or the Prow. Maybe I will find a partner after all. I leave a note and then head off for Washington Column. I'm going to check out the approach. I don't plan on getting lost with the pig on my back; better to hike up today and make sure I can find it. I get off the bus at North Pines and walk through the campground, over the horse bridge and through the backpackers' campground. I hike down the horse trail and head up into to woods after a little distance. When I hit the base of the cliff, I find I have left the horse trail too early. No problem; I just follow the base for a while. On the way I pass various, assorted junk: homemade aiders, a sleeping bag, numerous cans, water bottles, and too many "poop bombs". Come on people. A poop tube is not that hard to make; get with the program.
I eventually hit the class three section and begin to scramble up and to the right. The beginning of the climb is pretty obvious. The Prow starts here also. It looks like a great line. I see ropes above on the South Face route dangling down, but the climbers are around the corner and I can't see or hear them. I hike back down the approach and find out where I should have been. Ok, I'm set for tomorrow. If I connect with someone at Camp 4, that will be good; if not, I'm not waiting around. Tomorrow it is.
I grab some dinner and head back to the camp site. There are no new notes on the board and no response to mine. At the site I meet some men and their sons who are planning to climb the Royal Arches Route tomorrow. One of the men had climbed the South Face a number of years ago. He encourages me and thinks my plan for a three day, two night solo climb is realistic. I sort my gear one more time. I take out everything I won't need and stash it in the back of a bear box. I'm quite tired, so sleep comes more easily than I expect, even on a trimmed down, five buck sleeping pad.
I'm up, but it's not early. No problem. I've only got three pitches today, two free and one short A1. The plan has been to climb to Dinner Ledge today and bivy. Tomorrow I'll fix pitches four and five, and if there is enough rope, part of pitch six. I'll bivy Thursday night, get up early on Friday and shoot for the top. I'll rap back to Dinner Ledge and if there is still enough light, I'll rap with the gear back to the valley. If I'm going a little slow, I'll sleep Friday on the ledge as well and get back to the valley on Saturday morning. I've resolved myself to a solo ascent, and I'm feeling excited about it.
While still on the horse trail, I run into a Swiss climber who has bailed on his solo attempt. His were the ropes I saw yesterday. He had gotten hung up at the Kor Roof while trying to jug with the haul bag on his back. He was hanging free in the wind and his lines were twisting as he spun under the roof. He got freaked out and decided to bail. He thinks my plan is better, not attempting to haul the bag above Dinner Ledge. He does mention that another climber has just begun to solo the route and that we may want to pair up. This throws a kink in my plans, but it is a good idea. I'd be safer with a partner, and it would certainly increase my chances for success. I wish him luck as I head on up the approach. Since I've been up it before, I know what to expect. I had planned to leave half of the gear at the base of the third/fourth class section and make two approach trips, but now I'm in a hurry to catch the climber ahead of me. It isn't as bad as I thought it would be, and soon I'm up at the start of the climb.
As I drop my bag I can hear the climber above me. He's climbed the first pitch and is now working on hauling his bag. I holler on up to him and find out that his name is Rich, and yes, he is soloing. It doesn't take us much time to decide to partner up; I haven't climbed a wall and he hasn't succeeded on one yet. Rich has been in the valley for two and a half weeks and although he's climbed a lot of wall pitches (seven pitches of the Nose solo and 17 pitches of Triple Direct with friends), he hasn't topped out on anything. After figuring out what I need to bring with me, I leave the rest of my gear at the base and jug the line to the top of pitch one. I get my first look at Rich. He's strong; really strong. And he's pealing big time from too many days getting sunburned on south facing walls. In general he looks just gnarly enough to be a wall climber.
Since Rich was planning on a solo attempt and since he was planning on hauling all his gear to the top, he's brought a lot with him. He's even brought a single portaledge to bivy on the wall above Dinner Ledge. When I throw my gear in his Grade VII haul bag, it almost fills it up. We discuss our plan and decide that since we are now a party of two, it makes sense to haul to Dinner Ledge and fix the next two pitches today. We also decide to rap the route instead of hauling everything up. So even though we've got too much stuff, it will only have to be hauled to Dinner Ledge.
Since Rich has more aid experience, we decide he will take the second pitch (C1) and I will take pitch three (5.8). Unfortunately because we both had gotten a late start today, it is already well after noon when Rich starts his second lead. The pitch is short and soon Rich is hauling and I'm cleaning the pitch. It cleans easily since it is straight up. I put on my climbing shoes and head out on the third pitch. I go ahead and pull on my gear for the little face move. Why not; it's wall climbing. I run up to the end of the ledge and set up the belay. Rich uses a "Texas haul", and even though I haven't hauled that way before, it works very well for pulling a heavy bag up a slab. I then hump the bag over to Dinner Ledge, and we break out the food and water.
Even though we've had a late start, we still don't feel rushed. Eventually I suggest that I lead pitch four, the Kor Roof, since it is C1. Rich will lead the fifth pitch which has C2 climbing since he's done more aid. I encounter my first fixed head just below the roof. It looks like someone has just smashed a piece of tin foil into a divot in the rock. Since it doesn't inspire much confidence and since I can't replace it if it blows, I step on it lightly and move on up to the roof. I'm having fun. Aiding on bolts through the roof it awesome; nothing to be afraid of and what a great location. I ask Rich to snap a couple of pictures of me before I pull over the lip. The crack above aids with relative ease, but I keep needing the same size pieces. I eventually lower back to clean a few to use higher. Mistake. Although I use some of what I cleaned, I cleaned too much. Rich has grief as he cleans the pitch. Although he can hold onto the crack as he cleans, when he lets go he slides back over the lip and has to jug back up a second time. Sorry, bud.
Rich takes the rack and starts up pitch five. He's over the initial roof easily, but can't find the placement after the last bolt. Finally he gets into the top step and finds the spot. Soon he's making comments about how scary the aid is on this pitch. Although he's done C2 on El Cap, he's finding this pitch to be more scary. He eventually gets to the pendulum and a while later is at the mid pitch bolts, 165 feet above Dinner Ledge. We look at the diminishing light and realize we should have been in a little more of a hurry earlier on. Oh well, Rich sets up a belay, and I head up to clean. Unfortunately, Rich didn't remember the grief I gave him by back cleaning the previous traverse. He's cleaned the piece just before the pendulum and I'm now hanging by a cam eight feet right of the pendulum point. If I could retract the cam and just swing I would, but I can't get it to move without getting off of it first. But if I get off of it, I won't be able to reach back to it to clean it. Finally I aid up on it and find the one spot where one of the pieces I've already cleaned will fit. Ok, we are fine now. I can clip clean across to the pendulum. I lower out across the pendulum and then jug up to the belay. We rap down the haul line to Dinner Ledge for supper and a comfortable bivy.
Since we are done with climbing for the day, we spend a little time getting to know each other. Rich has only been climbing for two years. He got hooked right away. I've noticed that he's got the right gear for wall climbing: nice Metolius haul bag, Yates aiders and harness, and BD portaledge. He did ask me to bring along my set of HB offset nuts since he only had BD Stoppers. We are both very glad to have them. In fact, I don't remember one nut placement where I chose a Stopper over the HB nuts. I also find out Rich is from St. Louis. Since I call the Chicago area "home", we are both mid-west boys. Rich sleeps well too; as soon as he's down, he's out. He warned me that he snores, but I never notice it. I don't sleep well and spend some time looking out over the valley and enjoying the stars. While lying there I hear noises over by the gear. I don't have my glasses on and when I shine my light over by it, I see some sort of fury creature, about the size of a big squirrel. I never did figure out what it was, but I sit and wonder how these animals get up to and survive on these ledges. I finally drop off to a fairly good night's sleep.
We were tired and we slept in too late. We are also being a little lazy. After breakfast and my first wall dump, I start jugging up the line first. Rich will finish pitch five, I'll do six, and then we'll just keep leapfrogging up the wall. The second will jug with a large hip pack and the coiled haul line. Rich has the good gear, but I've got junk. My harness is cutting off my legs while I hang, belaying Rich up the last half of pitch five. I'm really happy when I finally get to start jugging.
Since there is a little 5.7 face in the middle of pitch six, I lead off in my climbing shoes. I bought them big anyway, so I just take them off at belays. Pitch six is really fun aiding. The cracks are straight up and I can top step much of the time without any problem. I also go ahead and back clean a lot of pieces. 160 feet later, I'm standing at the belay while Rich jugs up to me.
Rich has planned on free climbing the 5.9 pitch seven, but the first few moves feel really awkward. He pulls out the aiders and aids up the initial crack. When he gets to the higher crack, he puts the aid gear away and finishes the pitch clean. As I approach the belay, Rich warns me about the death block at the bottom of the chimney he's standing in. This thing is ugly and the front of it is being held into the bottom of the chimney by an old half-inch runner pulled tight as a guitar string. He's behind it, in the back of the alcove using cams to back up the belay. I avoid standing on it as I collect the gear and plan to have fun on the 5.6 chimney above.
I must have really screwed something up in the upper chimney where it squeezes down to body width. I'm facing left (first mistake) with too much gear on my right side. Initially I can't move because the gear has slid around my back and is outside the chimney behind me. All of the slings are sticking to the rock. I'm stuck. Finally with enough wiggling and thrashing, I work up high enough to place a tiny nut on the left, outside of the chimney and aid up on it. I had to commit to it before I could even get a good look at it, but this lets me turn around and I can make some progress. With my last piece being far below in the back of the chimney, a fall would probably landed me on Rich's head. Somehow I've missed the bolt inside the chimney (or is it gone?), but all's well that ends well. I'm a little freaked by the experience, so I don't bother to differentiate between the C1 and 5.7 climbing above; I just aid it all the way to the belay. Rich is up soon and we talk through the final pitch.
Since we plan on running the last three pitches together with our 60-meter rope, I sit up high with my back to the wall to belay. This also protects me from the inevitable falling debris when Rich hits the loose junk above. Rich aids the initial crack and moves out of sight. Things really slow down at this point. From my recollection of the topo, there should only be one more short aid section and then a run to the top, but Rich is climbing really slowly. He's complaining about all of the dirt and loose rock in what was supposed to be C1 climbing. Eventually I start asking where he is and trying to see him. We finally figure out that he's missed the 5.6 traverse and is now aiding up some off route crack. Even though he's not far from what appears to be the end of the crack he's in, we decide he'd better lower down and get back on route. He leaves a piece that we plan on getting when we rap the route, and I lower him back to the traverse. With Rich back on route, things speed up a little. But after some more climbing, the rope stops moving again and Rich is hollering down that he might be off route again. He had warned me earlier on that his route finding skills weren't too polished, so I wasn't feeling too impatient. However, by now it was starting to look like we might not be able to rap all of the way back to the valley tonight. The sun is dropping fast and we aren't moving too quickly. Eventually he yells down that he's back on route and the rope moves very fast now as he runs out the easy climbing to the tree at the top. I throw the haul line over my shoulder and jug up. I slide across the traverse, jug up the next section past a big death block, and try to move quickly through the final "gutter" to the top.
We snap a couple of quick pictures and begin setting up the rappel. Now my only worry is stuck ropes, and I don't like the looks of the gutter. After we've already tossed the ropes, we notice another rap station at a tree to the right (east). This station will allow us to rap down an initial slab and to keep our ropes free of cracks. Rich works over to it and then belays me over. There aren't any rap rings, so I donate a couple of "leaver biners". Unfortunately we've tied knots in the bottom of the ropes and they stick as we try to pull the ropes up to get them past a bush and out of the gutter. Finally Rich raps down and sideways back into the gutter and keeps on going. He frees the ropes on the way down and unties the knots. When I get to the bush, I pull up the ropes and get them out onto the slab where we want them. Our decision is good and the ropes pull easily after I get to the belay. Unfortunately with all of the distraction, both of us forget about cleaning the gear Rich left. Oh well, a cheap price to pay for the great experience.
On the next rap I'm also second. I make sure to keep the ropes to the left of the cracks. They pull fine again. I'm feeling pretty confident at this point even though the sun has long since gone down. I am a little concerned with the rap on pitch seven only because of the block, but it too goes without a hitch. The remaining raps go well with the last two needing headlamps to set up. We think about trying to see if we can make Dinner Ledge from the top of pitch five with our 60 meter ropes but decide against taking the chance and having to jug back up over the Kor Roof if the ropes don't reach.
Dinner Ledge is once again a sweet bivy site for the night. Actually, come to think of it, I'll sleep better here than down in Camp 4 with all of the derelict climbers around partying half the night. Rich is out pretty quickly after supper, but I'm a little too keyed up to sleep right away, so I enjoy the stars for a while again. Yosemite Valley, this place is awesome!
Neither of us is in any hurry today to get up, but we eventually roll out of bed and start getting the gear separated and packed. Unfortunately, Rich can't hold it any more and gets the privilege of using a partially filled poop tube. The real problem is that since it's mine, I get the privilege of emptying it later!
Eventually we are rapping pitch three. I run into a party just starting to lead pitch two (sorry guys). They inform me that the ropes are making it down to them, so I continue on to their left and combine the two pitches in a single rappel. It is another father and son team. We give them a little beta and my copy of the Fish topo before we rap our final pitch.
Back at my haul bag, I have a little more repacking to do than Rich. We chat with a team just starting the Prow. Another team can be seen higher on that route. Surprisingly, we had no other party on the South Face while we were climbing. With all I had heard about the popularity of the South Face route, I had expected some other climbers, but maybe the heat scared them off. For a climber fresh in from Taiwan and another from St. Louis, this weather seems just fine. Rich takes off ahead of me as I finish repacking. The initial forty feet or so of the descent worry me. I eventually decide to lower my bag on a long piece of webbing through the first few steps. Soon I'm back on the path with the pig on my back and hiking down through the loose gravel. I run into one more party heading up to fix the first few pitches of the Prow. We chat a little about our respective climbs. I wish them luck and finish the descent to the horse trail.
Typically I'm a pretty reserved person, but I've saved my celebration for the level ground of the horse trail. I finally let out my "victory whoop" when my feet land on the dusty trail. It feels great to have climbed my first wall climb.
We climbed and rapped the route in less than 48 hours. If parties start early enough each morning, there should be no problem being back on the valley floor after only one night on the wall. I could definitely see how quick parties could do this route in a day if they skip the haul bag altogether. Be prepared for a descent in the dark if you try it in a day.
The approach is not bad at all. You can hike in from Ahwahnee or North Pines campground. Water is available in the backpacker campground if you want to wait until then to fill up. From the backpacker campground, you can hike on the horse trail and look for a cairn to the left of the trail after you've walked through some big boulders (sometimes the cairn is knocked down and not too obvious). 20 meters or so into the woods there is a brown sign in five languages reminding climbers to haul everything back out with them including human waste. From here the trail is fairly obvious; just follow path usually marked by cairns. When you get out of the woods and can look up to your left and see the beginning of the route, keep angling right (east) further than you think, kind of back into the woods until you can switchback and head west on a gravel path. If you find you need to third or fourth class it on the lower section, keep going right. There is a short fourth class section right before the route actually begins. It is quite safe, only requiring a move or two before you are standing on the next ledge.
The week following my South Face climb, I climbed Royal Arches Route with my brother-in-law. We were planning to rap that route as well but changed our minds when we topped out and headed over to the North Dome Gully. Big mistake. It is nasty and no fun at all. The only redeeming quality for the NDG descent is that you get to have a killer view of Half Dome from the top of Washington Column. If you are climbing the South Face route, rappelling the route means you don't have to haul the pig above Dinner Ledge, speeding up your ascent as well as conserving energy. You will also avoid knocking a whole lot of rock loose with the bag as it goes up the "gutter" on the last pitch. When we did go down the NDG, we ended up on the east side down low and "had" to make four raps anyway. So for four more raps on the South Face, you can avoid the torture altogether. As has been mentioned in numerous places before, don't attempt the NDG descent at night. If you rap, go over to the tree a little way to the east. You can avoid knocking more rock loose if you rap from there. I'm not sure if there is a way to haul from this point as well, which would reduce the rock fall. Maybe have the second jug with the bag on his back? It was pointed out to me that rapping the route could result in increased danger to parties below you. You've got to decide which is the lesser of the evils, dumping rocks as you hump/haul the bag or possibly knocking something loose as you rappel.
I'm a little fuzzy on what gear we actually had on the route. I was using Rich's rack and he had Metolius TCU's and BD Camalots, I think two of each piece through #3 Camalot (including Jr's) and one #4 (I think?). I do recall using a lot of larger TCU's and smaller Camalots. Rich had one #00 TCU and made use of it at least three times when he couldn't get in anything else. We had two sets of stoppers (Rich's) and my one set of HB Offsets from #0 all the way up. You only really need two sets of nuts though. The Offsets were killer! Rich kept mentioning that he was going to buy a set immediately and never go up on a big wall without them again. As I mentioned above, I only used the Stoppers when I had already used up the appropriate size HB Offset. I usually set the Stoppers in their "offset" position as well (sideways) since they fit the scars and flaring cracks better that way. One more thing. If you are really going to get into wall climbing, get the ladder style aiders like the ones from Yates. I had the more "standard" design and spent hours watching Rich moving easily in his Yates aiders wishing I had a pair. And if you plan on any hanging belays, get a fat harness or bring a belay seat.
Dinner Ledge is a great bivy. It's flat and covered with fine gravel and sand. Climbers have made a small wall around the edge with larger rocks. You can see Lunch Ledge above to the west as well. Below Lunch Ledge is another ledge level with Dinner Ledge that makes for a nice secluded spot to "read the comics". Unfortunately it's been used numerous times by people who didn't bring a poop tube. When the wind blows just right, you get that pleasant smell of a rest stop latrine as you lay in your bivy sack.
Have fun and stay tied in.
(My special thanks to Julie for encouraging me to pursue my dreams and to Rich for making the climbing a lot more fun than if I had been by myself.)
Editor's Note: This report is also available on the author's web site