This year the heavy winter weather gave way to a long and wet spring laden with some of the most spectacular wildflowers. I spent most of that time in Bishop – bouldering and face climbing – gearing up for a summer spent in Yosemite. Early morning approaches and all day exertions are the tell tale signs of Valley climbing. In the last couple of months here I’ve had my fill of both.
At the end of March I attended the Red Rock Rendezvous as one of the instructor athletes for La Sportiva. Ben Ditto and I did a bit of our own climbing there, making an ascent of the ultra-classic Levitation 29, in our spare time. This had me hungry for long routes after a winter spent mostly on the boulders. We returned to California in early April. Yosemite was still wet and snowy. Bishop was still perfect. There was some bouldering still to do and it was prime time for Owen’s River Gorge.
We spent our days getting in pitch after pitch of crimps and high steps, ticking off a few 13s and testing the bolts on others. We were feeling strong and primed for a summer season in Yosemite. As the spring rains died down in the Valley and my work season starting I made the trek over to the West (aka. the wet) Side of the Sierra. The waterfalls raged and granite walls loomed above. I felt incredibly small and lost among the tourist and rv’s. I wanted to get off the ground. I wanted to be on the granite walls, the ground sweeping away hundreds of feet below.
El Cap was packed. Team after team stretched themselves across the expanse of the granite sea. It looked wet, too. I told myself I wouldn’t be going up there this season, I would wait for the secret, quiet season. When the chances of getting hit by paper bags filled with poo or some aid climbers dropped rack of nuts are way less. No, this summer my sights were set on Leaning Tower.
At the end of April my good friend Eric Ruderman and I made our maiden voyage on the free climbing of the West Face of the Tower. It was a rough intro to the route, for we were stuck behind an aid party. After two hours of sitting in my harness I finally reached the anchor at the end of the 200 foot bolt ladder. Eric jumared up to meet me. We would not be reaching the summit on this day and so instead took our time in getting to know the two crux pitches of the route. He and I made a couple of more trips up there towards the beginning of May and again in June. Ben Ditto joined us and there was talk of making a team of three ascent. But, it was getting hot and timing was going to be everything. And our separate lives were pulling us in different directions.
Eric returned to the coolness of the Santa Cruz ocean and Ben and I continued to sweat it out in Yosemite. We found ourselves seeking out the shady cliffs and making early morning treks up to obscure classics like Arrowhead Arete. We either woke before sunrise and hit the climbing before the sun cast it’s paralyzing spell or slept in and went out in the cooling off late afternoon. A lot of cragging filled our days in the month June and the heat had us scared for what lay ahead.
But, this July in the Sierra has been one of unusually cool temps and soon enough Ben and I were making plans to go back to Leaning Tower. With the alarm set for 4am on July 10th we readied ourselves for what would be our last trip up there. We drove off towards the Valley in the dark, jittery with the buzz of coffee and pop-tart. We approached with the rising sun and racked up as the birds made their first calls of the day. Pitch one, my lead, I felt tight in my hips- the wild stemming seemed hard – this felt like a cruel and unusual wake up warm up. I anchored in and belayed Ben. Pitch two, his lead, he smoothly climbed through the awkward start to the pumpy crack to the sequency mantel before he disappeared over the bulge of the slab above.
The birds were in full aerobatics mode. Flying and diving into the cracks that surrounded us. A lizard scampered by. I marveled at the grace and certainty in which these animals moved. I wondered what Ben was up to up there; had he reached the knee bar yet? Then a tug on the rope, I almost couldn’t feed rope out fast enough. I knew he had reached Guano Ledge, he had sent the pitch. He belayed me up and soon I found myself standing on the smears under the knee bar. This spot had been hit or miss for me before. I wasn’t going to give in to miss this time. I reached up, grabbed the right hand pinch, shuffled my feet, got the knee bar, matched hands, pushed with my left foot and reached the right hand side pull. Soon I was pressing over and onto the ledge with Ben. I felt pumped but calm. I needed a sandwich, I needed some water. I needed to get focused for my next lead.
After a brief rest I stood on the ledge looking out to river below. A hummingbird flew up and hovered at eye level for what seemed like a timeless expanse. It reminded me to be light and free. I grabbed the rack and set off onto pitch three. Pitch three starts with some of that only found in Yosemite slab down climbing before leaving you to make a huge expanse over to where the real holds are. It had taken me great effort to figure this out previously. I needed all my power and technique. I placed a high piece and climbed down to the iron cross. I laid back on the left hand and stemmed my feet, my five foot frame barely reached the right hand edge. I matched hands, but I hadn’t reached far enough. There was little to grab with the left hand. I went for it anyway, my legs swinging over to the right. I held it for half of half a second before falling and butt scumming across the slab below. There would be a bruise there for sure.
I righted myself, pulled back onto the rock and started over. I knew that if I could make this move then we would make a successful ascent of this route. I was once again down climbing into the crack(s). This time I managed a no-hands rest before positioning myself for the reach. I thought about Wolfgang Gullich and about his ideas of pushing the mind. He had felt that the body has always been capable but that it is our mind that really needs the training, that there is a gap between the two that we need to bridge in order to reach our full potential. I stretched out my left hand, I looked at my sinewy arm. I had the muscle to do the moves, I just needed to focus the brain – clear the mind and focus. I laid back on the left hand, stemmed my feet and reached out right. This time I reached a little further, I matched hands, swung my feet over and was moving over good edges to the mantle. I had made the move, I had bridged the gap. I stood at the last rest before the slopping, juggy, slippery, traverse. I shook out and took off and soon enough I was belaying Ben up.
Aside from the logistical conundrum of pitch four the rest of the route went quite well. There were no falls (although I came close on the last pitch due to some foot slippage), no beat downs from the sun and no shortage of exposure or good climbing. The crack pitches went by giving way to the roof bringing us to the last dihedral before reaching the summit. Sitting there on top of that narrow spine of rock the Valley fell below us. El Cap stood tall and proud in the afternoon sun and the falcons swooped by in shows of great aerodynamics. We had made a team free ascent of Leaning Tower, sticking to our goal and coming out on top. It felt amazing to have helped one another get there.
As we rapped to the ground I thought about the limits of climbing and the limits of the body. I thought about the birds zipping by in their light and fast way – seemingly with no limits. I thought about the incredibly overhanging wall on the left with it’s project free climb and I thought about the amazing free climbing movement in Europe. I thought about that hummingbird’s reminder to be light in the heart and the head and I thought about the harmony of mind and body. Without this harmony we are as Morihei Ueshiba says – stifled; but with this harmony we can achieve greatness, we can attain our goals, we are limitless.