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Climbing Yosemite's Big Walls: A Test of Faith

Submitted by tslater on 2006-04-28

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I don't recall exactly just how Pastor Tom Morris and I got hooked up to climb Washington Column, a twelve hundred foot vertical cliff in Yosemite Valley. He was referred by friends of friends and eventually called me up. He told me he wanted to celebrate his 40th birthday by taking on a new challenge instead of suffering through the black roses and Geritol jokes that usually attended such an occasion. I told him up front what kind of a commitment he was looking at and inquired if he was really serious. He was and so I agreed to show him what I knew and accompany him up a big wall. But first we'd have to climb something locally so I could see just what kind skills and strengths he had. A climbing team is only as strong as the weakest link, which means the slowest guy. After I hung up the phone, I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into.

It wasn't long before I found out. Tom is a six foot plus 200 pound man. My challenge, I learned quickly, wasn't getting this big boy in shape, but getting him up to speed on big wall techniques. And I only had three months to do it.

He proved to be a worthy student who took seriously the task at hand. What he lacked in agility and speed he matched with determination and strength. It would only be a matter of time before he had the skills he needed. But how much time became the crux of the matter.

We practiced together about five or six times in the three months before the eve of our departure. Tom's congregation at First Baptist Church in San Luis Obispo had given him $500 dollars as a birthday gift and he now had almost all the necessary pieces of equipment. What he didn't have he rented or borrowed. We were ready to see if we had what the route would require of us.

I met Tom at his house to pack the haul bag, or the "Pig" as we climbers like to call them. It is the size of a trash can and is made of heavy-duty vinyl. You fill it with everything you need for a climb and then drag it up the rock with you as you go. We piled in sleeping pads, 40 pounds of water, sleeping bags, jackets, headlamps, food, and various other items. I had to persuade Tom to leave his heavy six pac of V-8 juices behind. "That's what we have 40 pounds of water for," I said. Then he eyed me suspiciously as he pulled out my compact pillow from the haul bag and threw it to the floor. "I guess we don't have room for that either," I confessed. I also made him bring his light weight sleeping pad instead of his two inch thick sleep-like-a-king mattress. I assured him I'd trade him my pad since it was a bit longer than his. This gesture got things moving again and before we knew it we were in the car racing at the speed limit towards Yosemite Valley.

After a fitful night's sleep in the dirt just inside the park, we drove the rest of the way into the Valley and began our approach hike through the woods at 5:30 am. The first three pitches, or varying lengths of a 200 foot rope, went smoothly and we reached Dinner Ledge by 11 am. This 8 X 15 foot platform is 300 feet up the route and would be our base camp for the entire climb. We anchored the Pig to the rock and unpacked a few things and ate lunch. We were both glad that we didn't have to drag the Pig the other 900 feet up the cliff since it weighed close to seventy pounds. Especially Tom, since he backpacked it up to the base on the hike in.

The next half of our day would make or break us. It was the heart of the climb. I had to climb the three most technically demanding pitches of the route before it got dark so we would be within striking distance of the top for the next day. This is where Tom and I would face our biggest test, or so we thought.

The three difficult pitches up and over the famous twenty foot Kor Roof went well, even if they were a bit of a struggle for both Tom and I at certain moments. But we completed the three pitches and fixed our lines, tying them to the rock, and rappelled back down to Dinner Ledge with a half-hour of orange daylight to spare.

Up until this moment, the climb had been textbook. We were tired but happy and looking forward to sprawling out on our sleeping pads and eating dinner when we discovered that Tom's sleeping pad had blown off the cliff. He chuckled and said he was glad we had traded pads. I smiled and said I was sorry that he didn't have anything to trade me so the deal was off. But being the nice guy I am, I offered him a corner of my pad to sit on as we ate dinner. We ripped into our "tuna can delight" and swallowed down some English muffins and a two liter bottle of water each. Half-way through another night of pretend sleep, with the full moon shining down like an annoying light that had been left on, I awoke to the sounds of some mysterious creature dragging off one of Tom's nylon bags full of food. Tom's luck hadn't changed any and I woke him up to tell him so.

After an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve the bag, we secured what food we had left buy burying them with heavy rocks and endured the rest of the night. We woke up stiff, yet optimistic, on our summit day and proceeded to jug, or ascend via rope ascenders, our fixed lines to our previous high point made the day before.

There was only one more serious pitch left to climb, a 160 foot crack no wider than my pinkie. For two hours, I slipped tiny wire wedges of steel into thin flares in the crack and pulled my way upwards. It was a long and sustained pitch and I was glad when I reached the bolt anchors at the end of the crack. Tom followed like a hero and it was finally his turn to lead up the rock.

Teetering slowly up the first twenty feet, Tom, feeling the weight of the clock, finally threw caution to the wind and made faster progress up towards an anchor of two bolts. A few minutes later I met him there. He decided to go with the momentum and felt strong enough to lead the next pitch also.

Excited to see him so confident 800 feet off the ground, I cheered him on. He made quick upward progress. Twenty-five minutes later I began to settle comfortably into the body size crack I was sitting in when all of a sudden I heard the dreaded words "Falling" erupt from Tom's terrified lips. I clutched at the rope as it went tight and felt an enormous jolt. Tom had apparently slipped off the rock while trying to put some protection in. He fell about ten feet and tweaked his ankle. He called down and assured me it wasn't anything serious, but he was through climbing for the moment.

I lowered Tom and checked on his ankle. He was a bit shaken, but still had his sights set on the summit. So I took the lead once again and climbed up to where he had fallen and passed the spot with a great sigh of relief. Then I finished the pitch, which had been trickier than it looked. Securely tied to a small tree, I called for Tom to follow. When he reached our belay tree, we were a mere 180 feet from the top. Success seemed imminent, but we decided that it would be best if I led the next difficult pitch and then Tom would then finish the last pitch that led to the summit. We were all smiles with our goal so close in sight.

Then halfway through the next pitch, a hidden storm announced itself with a peal of thunder that rattled our brains. It quickly roared from over the top of the cliff. The storm had snuck up on us without any warning. I was soon feeling rain drops and felt it prudent to lower back down to our tiny tree, fearing that it could get a lot worse very quickly. I was right. Shortly after I put my storm jacket on, the clouds burst. We huddled under our leafy umbrella and discussed our options.

I checked my watch. We had two hours of light left and about another 45 minutes of climbing to do. We also needed to rappel 900 feet back down to Dinner Ledge, which, if necessary, we were prepared to do in the dark since we were equipped with headlamps. However, I didn't want to rappel 900 feet in the dark and in the rain. We discussed this scenario and decided that if it didn't clear in a half hour we would forfeit the summit and begin our rappel using what light of day was left to our advantage. Tom was praying for God's guidance while I was downright begging for it. I didn't want to fail 150 feet from the top. We had come too far.

Not long after, a blue hole formed in the sky. Instead of waiting around to see if the storm was clearing, I began to climb again and pushed our line another forty feet higher towards the summit when it began to rain again. I huddled against a dripping granite wall and prayed my heart out. The rained slowed and eventually stopped, but the dark ominous clouds still hung over our heads. I shouted down to Tom, “This is it, this is our last chance! I’m going for it!” I was going to try to combine the next two pitches into one long one. I was going for the top.

As I climbed up the loose gully, the rope began to feed a little slower from below me. I wondered if I would have enough rope to reach the summit tree. I shouted down through the grayness for Tom's best guess of how much rope I had left. His return cry was carried off in the wind. I kept on moving up. The sky was getting darker. Forty feet from the top, thirty, twenty, ten, five, I strained against the drag of the rope that connected me to Tom. “Please God, two more feet.” I clutched the tree on the summit and pulled with everything I had left. I was barely able to clip the rope through the metal oval carabiner attached to the nylon slings that were wrapped around the tree's base. We had made it. “Off belay!” I shouted, and then fixed the rope.

As Tom slogged his way upwards, the rain began to fall steadily once again. By the time he reached me, we were both dripping. We celebrated our victory with a handshake and a quick photo. Two days of hard work and gut wrenching climbing for only two minutes on top and already we were concentrating on going back down. This is often the reality of climbing.

We had thirty minutes of daylight left so rappelling in the dark would be likely. We strapped on our headlamps and one after the other rapped over the edge. When we both had reached the familiar umbrella tree 200 feet below us, we pulled our ropes, anxious to feel the security of Dinner Ledge which was growing closer to us with every rappel. The rain had ceased. Then disaster stuck.

The tail end of one of our two ropes, which we had tied together to get maximum distance from each rappel, snagged in a crack as it fell. We whipped the rope up and down, sideways, no luck. Tom put his 200 pounds into it. Nothing. I added my 150 pounds and the rope still didn't budge. This couldn't be happening I thought to myself. This was supposed to be the easy part. In twenty minutes we would have been in our sleeping bags celebrating and now we were stranded 700 feet from home in falling darkness. I screamed in frustration and hung my head. There was silence up on that small ledge for a few moments until we both realized that we had to make some important decisions, and we had to do it quickly.

We talked about some possible solutions. All seemed desperate. The safest solution would be for me to re-lead the pitch with the rope we had remaining. The prospect of re-leading the pitch brought me to my knees. I had just climbed for twelve hours straight, hadn't had a sip of water in over three hours, was out of food, patience, and daylight. We were truly at the mercy of God. Actually we always were, we were now just extremely aware of it.

We sat in silence for a few more moments when Tom threw out the idea of cutting the rope. It was a good plan, quick, but it had one small flaw. If we cut it we might not have enough rope to get ourselves back down. I did not want to spend the night tied to a tree or hanging from the end of a rope.

We did some quick calculations and came to the conclusion that it would be close. How close we weren't sure. We stared at each other in the grim twilight as I threw him a sharp chunk of loose rock.

With five hammering blows, we were set free.

We'd quickly find out if we had enough rope to make it. One by one, down, down, down we slid into the darkness, retracing the route from the top down. Finally I swung out over the Kor Roof, sailing out into the stars with nothing beneath my feet but 400 feet of blackness. I couldn't see if the rope reached the ledge.

I slid my way down cautiously. People have died this way I thought, sliding right off the ends of their ropes and into the deadly void. My headlight searched below me, expecting to see the ends of the ropes at any second. My hands were tense, ready to hit the breaks. Then I saw them, dangling two feet above Dinner Ledge. I’d made it safely down.

I called up for Tom to follow and stood in awe as I watched him, discernible only as a tiny glowing dot of light, bounce his way home. He was "Yahooing" his way down in style, confident in the hands that held him. The full weight of victory came upon me as I collapsed onto the ledge and rummaged through our supplies, thanking God for water, English muffins, and just enough rope.


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