West Face, Leaning Tower (V, 5.7, A3)
Yosemite Valley, California, USA
The Leaning Tower, Yosemite Valley, California
Photo by John
The SearchIt was late winter in Yosemite Valley, March 1980. Spring was around the corner and some of the days were finally getting warm.
The sun was shining very brightly as I stumbled under the weight of my pack through the moss-covered talus. I sat down on a rock and drank to relieve my parched throat. There, towering high above me was my goal: the Leaning Tower.
There was no one else with me. I was alone. There would no one to share my joys and tribulations except the swifts the live in the cracks high upon the wall. I was really alone. I did not tell anyone else of my plans. Not my girlfriend, not my family, not my friends. One day I just disappeared from home…
Why was I alone? I searched my soul for an answer. Was it because I was afraid? Afraid that I would grow old, full of regrets of all the things that I didn’t do when I was young and still able to do them? So that I could readily accept the dulled vision, arthritis and death that would accompany me in older years?
Was it because I was unsure of myself? During my first pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley as a novice climber, the giant rock walls filled me with unimaginable terror. The intimidation was so extreme that my friends and I shyly retreated from Yosemite with our ropes after looking around for only two hours.
Why was I alone? The reason was not entirely clear to me. But I did know that this wall was the next step in my search for an answer.
That evening I scrambled up 1,000 feet, reaching the base of the route just as dusk was beginning to claim the Valley. Yosemite fell away and disappeared into the black shadows. The giant rock tower above was still brilliantly lit up in the red alpenglow of the setting sun. This was my world: a tower of orange granite floating in the void, a surrealism broken only by the chattering of the diving swifts.
Solo Big Wall TechniqueMy big wall soloing technique was pretty simple and fail-proof. I had two sets of double carabiners on my harness. Gates were opposite and opposed. I pulled 15 to 20 feet of slack, tied a figure 8 and clipped into carabiner set #1. I climbed upwards. When the rope pulled tight, I pulled another 15 to 20 feet of slack, tied another figure 8 and clipped into carabiner set #2. Then I unclipped from carabiner set #1 and untied the knot. Climb on!
My belays were multi-direction and bomb-proof. I tied both the lead rope and the haul line into the belay. I led each pitch trailing the haul line.
When I reached the next belay, I tied off and rappelled down the haul line. This proved to be a bit of challenge on the Leaning Tower because the pitches were so overhanging. I actually had to rappel down well below the bottom belay station and then pull myself in to the belay. There was so much tension on the haul rope that often I used jumars to pull myself to the belay. I figured that way if the haul line got cut on an edge above me I would still be attached to that segment of rope that was tied to the belay.
In my haul bag I had a hammock with spreader bar and rain fly, three gallons of water, a down jacket, a sleeping bag, a head light with spare batteries and food.
Day 1 - The Journey BeginsThe first day of climbing demonstrated that solo-climbing a big wall is a very slow and time-consuming endeavor. My poor arms screamed at me in agony as I climbed the radically overhanging rock. Rappelling down the haul line certainly pumped up my adrenalin as I spun earthward on that thin rope. I spent nearly two hours try to get through an awkward section where the bolts were missing. I thrashed and thrashed again in the top step of my aiders (no small feat on a 110-degree overhang), collapsing into my slings until I had enough strength to try again. I didn’t have a bolt kit but my cheater bar allowed me to snag dowels beyond the missing bolts.
I climbed only three of the route’s eleven pitches that first day. Crawling into my hammock I realized for the first time just how exhausted I was from the day’s work. The night air grew cold and I fell asleep in my hammock listening to the wind as the occasional snowflake melted on my face.
Day 2 - Crazy?At the first sign of light I started climbing again. I watched as another climbing party appeared on the talus below. By the time I arrived at the top of the fourth pitch (Ahwahnee Ledge), the other party was right below me. I nailed up the fifth pitch (The Garden Pitch) and rappelled diagonally back to Ahwahnee Ledge just as the other group arrived. When they discovered that I was alone they declared that I was certifiably crazy! They jugged my ropes and fixed one more pitch by head lamps before we all settled onto Ahwahnee Ledge for the night.
Sierra Ledge Rat on Ahwahnee Ledge
Day 3 - The Big MistakeI spent most of the day freezing on Ahwahnee Ledge waiting for the other group to climb their fixed ropes to the top of the sixth pitch.
I followed and continued my slow journey upwards. As they disappeared over a large overhang, I bit my lip to prevent myself from shouting, “Take me with you! I don’t want to be left alone on this fucking cold rock wall! Take me with you!” I growled to myself as their shouts faded away. Once again, I was alone.
Yours truly getting left behind.
Photo by the group who passed me.
I managed to climb only one more pitch before nightfall. It was so damn cold that I wasted a great deal of time thawing my hands between placements. Darkness was approaching so I set up the hammock at the top of the seventh pitch. I had managed to climb only seven pitches in 3 days. It was going to take two more days to reach the top.
While settling into my hammock for the night, a careless slip sent my bivouac gear sailing into the void. In a futile gesture I reached out with both arms, as if somehow the gear would rise back up to save me from the deadly cold. But my gear kept going downwards. My sleeping bag and down jacket floating earthward in graceful, slow spirals. I watched everything settle on the talus 1,500 feet below. Now I was really alone.
“Will I survive the night?” My thoughts focused on this question. All I had was the cagoule that I was wearing. I curled up, pulled my feet inside then pulled the drawstring closed.
“Am I to die up here, to be later found as frozen corpse, uselessly huddled up in this hammock?” Birth and death suddenly seemed disturbingly similar: I would be found in the fetal position.
The frigid night seemed to drag on for an eternity. Snow was blowing all around me in the darkness. I kept moving to fight off the shivers. I watched automobile lights pass up and down the Valley. The tourists below were oblivious to my frightful predicament up on the wall.
Hours and hours passed but it was still dark. “Has time really stopped? Maybe I am already dead. Maybe my consciousness is destined to spend eternity here, at the precise moment of my death. I will never see morning. I will never live to see my 20th birthday...The wind…is getting stronger, colder…” I was getting more and more frightened with each passing hour.
The Presence of Another?Suddenly, a white comet shot out of the clouds and engulfed me a blinding light. Someone -- or something -- spoke to me in that light, without ever having said a word. He -- She -- It -- reassured me that I was going to live, but I had to reach the summit the next day. No more bivuoacs on the wall.
Although I never saw anyone, this unseen "being" imparted knowledge to me. Suddenly I knew everything that this "being" wanted me know. It was so real that I didn't even question it. I was going to follow orders from this "being," without question, and I was going to get to the summit tomorrow. I was going to sleep on the ground at Sunnyside Campground tomorrow night. That was that. It was settled.
I wasn't frightened anymore. And then the "being" left me alone to take care of my tasks.
Day 4 - "Out of the Impossible"Dawn of the fourth day arrived. Like a rusted machine without any oil, my limbs creaked and cracked as I started climbing again. I knew that I had to top off that day. I had climbed only 7 pitches in 3 days, and now I had to climb the final 4 more pitches in one day. So I started climbing at a frenzied pace. My hands grew so cold that I couldn’t grasp anything. But I couldn’t afford to let that slow me down. I can't tell you how many pitons and carabiners my frozen hands dropped.
Later in the afternoon I reached the summit of the Leaning Tower in a heavy snow storm. I sat on top with my legs dangling over the edge and cried for thirty minutes. My tears fell 2,000 feet to the talus below.
I descended the Leaning Tower Chimney, rappelling about five times and down-climbing the rest of the way. When I reached the talus field below I discovered that I was too weak to walk. My mind was still working well but my body quit on me. Mind over matter, I pushed onwards.
Just as I reached the road, darkness fell and the storm intensified. A deluge of mixed rain and sleet soaked me to the bone. The walls above were plastered with snow. I stuck out my thumb to hitch-hike back to my car at Yosemite Lodge, but no one would stop for me. Exasperated and utterly spent, I lay down in the road in pools of freezing water and cried.
Finally a woman in a pickup truck stopped and gave me a ride. I sat in the truck bed, freezing in the wind, grateful that my ordeal was over. There at Yosemite Lodge I found my girlfriend parked next to my car, patiently waiting for me. I fell into her arms and we both cried.
That night another young solo climber (David Kays) froze to death on the Nose Route on El Capitan. He was only 250 feet below the summit.
I had been led "out of the impossible" by my mysterious visitor. That night I slept on the ground at Sunnyside Campground. That night, sitting at the campfire, I was more alive than ever before.
The Leaning Tower after the storm
EpilogueMy girlfriend in San Jose, California, noticed that I had turned up missing. She figured that I had gone to Yosemite (where else?).
She drove 5 hours to Yosemite and found my car in the Yosemite Lodge parking lot. There she waited for me for two days. Finally she grabbed a pair of binoculars and began searching the cliffs. She found a solo climber high on the Leaning Tower. She didn’t recognize my clothing, but she did recognize my etriers.
I never soloed a big wall again. But I did free-solo multi-pitch routes. I soloed many peaks in Colorado and the High Sierra. I have also spent many weeks or even months hiking solo in the Sierra backcountry.
Soloing is a part of my other sports as well. I am a solo technical caver and a solo technical scuba diver. I have made numerous solo ski descents in Colorado and California, including the U-Notch and Thunderbolt Couloir in the Palisades, and the Mountaineer’s Route on Mount Whitney.
Most of the time I solo for lack of a partner, or just because I can. I am not searching for anything anymore. I found what I needed to find. Now I solo just to have fun.
The Third Man FactorWho was that unseen visitor who gave me stength on the Leaning Tower almost 30 years ago? For many years I believed that I had been touched by an angel or God himself. Later, I dismissed that notion can came to believe that my visitor was just a trick of my subconscious mind, a way of helping me deal with stress.
But recently I learned about the phenomenon of the Third Man.
From John Geiger's book The Third Man Factor:
"The Third Man Factor is a biography of an extraordinary idea: That people at the very edge of death, often adventurers or explorers, experience a sense of an incorporeal being beside them who encourages them to make one final effort to survive.
If only a handful of people had ever experienced the Third Man, it might be dismissed as an unusual delusion shared by a few overstressed minds. But the amazing thing is this: over the years, the experience has occurred again and again, to 9/11 survivors, mountaineers, divers, polar explorers, prisoners of war, solo sailors, aviators and astronauts. All have escaped traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a helper or guardian.
The mysterious force has been explained as everything from hallucination to divine intervention. Recent neurological research suggests something else. In The Third Man Factor John Geiger combines history, scientific analysis and great adventure stories to explain this secret to survival, a Third Man who - in the words of legendary Italian climber Reinhold Messner - "leads you out of the impossible."