Leaning Tower - V 5.7, A2


From Beer to Exposed Reality and back to Beer again

I’m not sure where the idea came from. Bringing a completely inexperienced climber up the Leaning Tower sounded okay, I guess. I’ve taken Jesiah top roping to X-38 before, and he’s followed me up the Great Northern Slab once before and that’s worth at least a small feather in the hat. I suppose it was one of those evenings, when a belly full of beer made nothing seem impossible and grandiose visions of victory dominated conversation. The beer that exaggerates the story, enhances the punch line, and boosts the confidence that so often drives climbers’ stories. It had to be one of those nights when we decided the next logical step for Jesiah’s climbing career: climb a grade V Yosemite big wall!

It must not of been the beer talking, because the idea outlasted our buzz. A few e-mails, and many Big Wall Theories later, we found ourselves in my basement sorting gear and working out the systems.

It seems when preparing for a large climb, the ambition grows linearly with the amount of beer consumed. And so came Tom, with yet another belly full of beer late one work night, when he overheard Bob and my ridiculously ambitious plan to take

Jesiah up every big wall in the valley in only 7 days, including the 33 pitch nose of El Capitan. I saw the sparkle in Tom’s eyes, and after informing him we had an extra spot on one of the porta-ledges, he wanted in. Again, I was certain it was the beer talking, but what seemed like the very next day, Tom forwarded us his travel plans. There was no stopping that train!

Bob, Jesiah and I spent a few days at Index. Jesiah had a large learning curve, including everyday topics like the in’s and out’s of hanging belays, jumaring, lowering out a haul bag and deploying multiple ledges on one anchor and the notoriously complex lower out. Oh and not to mention, the figure 8 knot! This was a fire hose of tribal knowledge. I’m not sure if it was his lack of understanding what he was getting into, but he was a true sport through it all. Many early mornings and long hours spent on the small walls of Index, and his desire to go to the valley wouldn’t budge. He was 100% committed to making this work!

The morning of Saturday September 2nd found us in Livermore California, looking for the essentials for climbing walls like handy wipes, toilet paper, battery powered speakers and plastic bling necklaces. We still didn’t have a plan, and after 25 cups of coffee it was decided we were already pressed for time and had to get onto a wall that day. All sounded good, but we were still 4 hours away from the valley!


The start of all good climbing stories

And so it went, we drove straight to the valley, and without wasting a single second on the mall’esque features with thrones of tourists and the crowded circus of exhibits, we pulled into the very first parking lot in the valley: Bridal Vail Falls. We expected lots of parties on the wall, so I quickly scrambled up with no gear to scope out the situation while the others sorted gear and packed the pigs (less commonly referred to as haulbags). I got to the base of the wall where I found an empty bivvy site, and nobody on the route! The climb was on!!


Welcome to Yosemite!

I have heard stories of folks soloing the Leaning Tower in under 1 day. Lynn Hill and Katie Brown freed all but the first 2 pitches one afternoon in 2004. Not us, we were going full blown siege style with 3 haul bags, 2 porta ledges and 9 gallons of water. It was good planning too, as we had no idea of the oppressive heat in the valley, nor how our four person climbing Theory was going to workout.


The awesome “4th class, 5.6 approach”.
This isn’t climbing yet, it’s the approach!


We bivvied at the base of the “4th class” 5.6 approach. Sunday AM, Bob and I started shuttling loads to the base of the first pitch. Tom and Jesiah went back down to the cars for more water and weighty things to put in the pigs. Once we got the Radio Shack speakers vibrating, Bob was off leading the first pitch. Yeah! We were very excited to finally be making upward progress.

The first two pitches are “merely” bolt ladders, bolt ladders that average 110 degrees! I cleaned the first pitch, which I am convinced is more difficult than leading. At times, I had to pull myself back into the wall, and at my lightest point in the swing, attempt to unclip the biener that was holding me against the wall. The result of this of course allows further upward movement, but also adds potential energy into my position. I would often swing away from the wall so far my feet would loose connection and I would spin around my jumars. This combined with the fact that the first pitch of the leaning tower starts over a 400 foot blank wall. By the second move of the route, the exposure was sickening.

At the hanging belay, Bob and I exchanged gear quickly, and I started up the second bolt ladder. The bolts were solid, all have been replaced by the ASCA* and stamped with thick strong letters “40 KN”. The leading went pretty quickly as these bolts were easy and safe to clip. Looking down we had our first grasp of how incredibly overhanging this wall is. Jesiah and Tom had to lower out from the wall from the very first pitch to jumar up. I was nervous for Jesiah, who had never done a free hanging jumar before. Come to think of it, neither had I! I was completely unsure if I could even do such a terrifying lower-out! I watched Jesiah, and from my vantage point, he looked like a fully seasoned pro! He must have been 15 to 20 feet away from the wall when the lower-out was finished. What a brave move from a complete noob! I was beaming with pride!


Bravery is required starting on the first pitch…

And so it went, pitch after pitch, haul after haul, lead after lead. The day wore on, and the sun belted us in the afternoon. At one point, Tom was within ten feet of the fabled Ahwahnee ledge, and the rope stopped moving. Not sure what was going on, and watching the sun drift ever closer to the edge of the world, we got him on the radio. Tom had taken a fall onto a hook and was quite riled by it. He was breathing hard and sounded quite dehydrated. After some encouragement, he pulled the slab move onto the ledge and fixed the jumar line. I watched Bob do the most impressively exposed and scary lower out. He had to let go of the rope before finishing the lowerout, sending him swinging our over the void. It wasn’t until the sun set that I had an opportunity to jug up to the ledge. My headlamp was conveniently stored in the haulbag that had been hauled up to the ledge. So I had to jumar blind, using the Braille technique on all the equipment and knots to verify they were done correctly.


… and every other pitch on this route!

On the ledge, life was great! We ate cold ravioli with pitons and chased it with warm beer. We could stand, and walk and lie down. I had a great night’s sleep!


Ahwahnee Ledge has 5 star accommodations.

The next day came sooner then wanted. It’s so easy to get “big ledge syndrome”. I mean, why would anybody leave this large comfortable ledge to go hang on some bolts 1000 feet above the valley floor? This was really no time to reason, and I followed Bob who was to start the day out leading the next pitch. The route started out with a “5.6” batman style traverse across an exposed slab to some bolts. Next, Bob duct taped an open biener to the end of his nut tool, climbed up onto slabby and small foot holds, stretched onto his tippy toes, and just barely clipped a lower out biener. Phew! A 15 foot lower out over the void, and onto some akward C2 climbing. About 15 feet up, Bob took a fall. It happened so fast! I blinked, and he was suddenly 15 feet lower, hanging on a deployed screamer. He was alright, and flew up the rest of the pitch in good style.


Ryan belaying Bob from Guano Ledge.

And so it continued through the day. Lead, follow, clean, lower out, jug, repeat. The sun came again and pelted us with its dehydrating power. Bob took another lead in the sun. This time it was a long, 140 foot C1 line through a roof system. More crazy lower outs, and we found ourselves at the base of a huge roof system, just two pitches from the top.


Looking back down onto Ahwahnee

Bob was terribly sick. The combination of leading two stressful pitches, the relentless sun, the lack of food, and extreme dehydration had caught up with him in a large way. The sun was near the ridge again and going down fast. Bob downed as much water as he could, put his head down, and proceeded to puke it all back out again, all over the hanging belay.


Hanging belays are fun to share with your friends…Until they puke on you!

Okay, this could be serious if Bob doesn’t recover. I asked what he wanted to do and volunteered to lead through the night to get us off this thing. He didn’t think he could move. We were staying the night. Two hours of organizing the hanging belay later, we were ready to deploy the ledge systems. Jesiah was a rope coiling mad-mad. Tom was an elevator shaft, moving supplies out of the pig and into reach. I was a drill sergeant. Bob was, well, a corpse. We got it together, and before we knew it, we all were lying down on an extremely comfortable wall bivvy with about thousand feet of hanging exposure.

Thankfully, after the sun set, and Bob got some food, he started feeling much better. 
“Livin’ the dream!”

“Livin’ the dream!”



We planed on 2 days, but expected 3. Bob and Jesiah camping out on “Puke Ledge”.


Quality time on the portable ledge, 1000 feet above the valley floor.

So, the next day, Tom and I set off for the final two pitches. The second to last pitch was a wildly overhanging roof. It traverses out, right over the valley floor, nearly horizontal! On the last pitch, Tom accidentally dropped a biener, and we watched it fall straight to the valley floor hitting nothing between Tom and the ground. It was a long way down!


The new guy, showing us how it’s done on yet another gigantic lower out!

It seamed so insignificant, reaching the top. It was nice to be able to walk around, of course. But we knew it wasn’t over yet. The descent was next. We followed rappel slings down the backside for what seemed like forever. There must have been ten rappels down the backside of the tower. We kept waiting for something terrible to happen with loose rock, or getting off route, but it never did. As we neared the valley floor, the sun, as it always does, began to set. Upon the final rappel, right when the last guy removed the rope from the device, the sun went down. Something was on our side, as we made our way back to the cars at a decent 9 PM. It was at that point we could all finally relax. Congratulations to everybody on the team! We were successful of not only climbing a Yosemite grade V, but in getting a complete novice up it, and up it safely!


Well earned beers at the car! Maybe the new guy is finally ready for the Basic Class!

What happened next? Well, Tom had to go home. For the three of us, the rest is up to your imagination. Maybe it will make a good story over a belly of beer sometime:









* ASCA is the American Safe Climbing Association. Please

Category: Big Wall Climbing
Sunday, December 17, 2017
Text Size