Big Air: The West Face of Leaning Tower

Well-rested after the weekend in Bishop, the gang headed back into the Valley with our second big wall in sight: the West Face of Leaning Tower. Leaning Tower is an impressive feature tucked into a slightly less prominent nook of the Valley. Its signature is a consistent overhang of between 95 and 110 degrees, which makes for intimidating free-hanging climbing throughout.

On my way to steal yo girl

Our first day was a relatively straight-forward but steep jaunt along the base to our bivy spot, a nice flat spot shaded by trees. This spot, though at the base of the rock, was not the beginning of the route. That was a few hundred feet away and required navigation of “The Catwalks,” an ultra-exposed hike/climb along narrow ledges hugging the wall while the ground drops out from below. A hand line runs along these catwalks, which you can clip into for sanity if the exposure hits too hard. By the end of the catwalks, you stand 400 feet off the deck with a ferociously overhanging bolt ladder ahead. This section went to Elam, who roped up and began fixing the first few pitches.


Sunset rappel

Voss and I went back to set up camp. Elam continued steady progress up the wall and through a few tricky aid sections. The difficulty of the more challenging moves was mitigated by ample fixed gear left behind by previous parties. It ranges from tiny nuts to stuck cams to ancient slings attached to God-knows-what to copperheads (tiny metal pieces pasted into improbably insecure cracks with a chisel). None of the gear blew, and Elam easily dispatched his pitch and descended with Matt back to camp.


Huge air!

The next day, Elam was to finish his block and hand the lead to Matt. Voss and I were the haul team. Hauling is usually not an exciting job, but this route took exception to that trend. The “morning commute” was a dizzying 200-foot jug up yesterday’s fixed line. Recall that the pitch overhangs considerably– this meant that Voss had to be lowered out some 30 feet into the free-hanging abyss before he hung plumb from the rope.

Voss jugs Pitch One

After he finished, he set up the haul system and shouted “Release the pig!” I let the haul bag fly, and it swung out majestically in a giant pendulum. Realizing that this looked very fun, I opted to lower myself out with the “rope swing” method as well, rather than the gentle hand-over hand technique. The swing-out was a total rush, until to my terror my body suddenly dropped five feet. The top of the rope had merely run over an edge and dropped to a different resting position–slightly spooky but not actually dangerous. I jugged the pitch alongside the pig, which Voss was winching up just behind me.



As Elam finished up his block, Voss and I began another adventure: setting up his brand-new portaledge. The nylon monstrosity proved simple to assemble, and it made the hanging belay vastly more enjoyable. Many photos were taken in the ledge, none of which fully captured the thrill of dangling 600 feet off the ground on a small sheet of nylon.


Welcome to the good life

Elam fixed the lines for his final pitch, and Matt took up the sharp end. As we were hauling, I noticed to my horror that water was rapidly dripping out of the bottom of the haul bag. Helpless, we did the only thing we could: haul faster. Once docked, we ripped open the bag and found, to our dismay, that the small water vessel stored on top of all our sleeping gear had opened up and was slowly soaking all of our things. We assessed the damage and found that we had lost about five liters of water, but most of the sleeping bags seemed dry thanks to waterproof stuff sacks. Voss’s bag was soaked through, however.


Matt on a beautiful line

Matt dispatched his first pitch, taking us to our campsite for the night: Ahwahnee Ledge. Ahwahnee is a relatively spacious ledge that sleeps four rather comfortably. We shuttled the bag over to an open spot and began setting the gear out to dry in the sun. Matt had plenty of work left, however, with two pitches of tricky aid ahead. We had a gorgeous view of Matt’s lead as we prepared dinner and set up bivies for the night. Matt finished up his block and descended back to Ahwahnee, where we watched the sunset. At one point, several helicopters flew overhead in a line. Little did we know that they were here for President Obama’s visit that weekend.





The next morning, Voss and I jugged the fixed lines and I began my block. I had one very long pitch followed by a “sixty-foot” pitch that was actually thirty feet. I had reached the anchors of the end of my block before Voss had finished the first half of the first pitch. It was weird that the pitch even existed. I have no comments about my block, it was pretty standard. Voss took up the sharp end next with two aid pitches to finish out the climb. With fixed gear everywhere, Voss used his enormous reach to make relatively quick work of this section. On the final pitch, however, an enormously strong wind picked up and began blowing our ropes everywhere. Voices had to raise for us to hear one another, and tension began to build. After a while, Voss called for me to take him off belay. A very challenging traversing clean almost did me in, but we were soon at the top with the haul team quickly following behind.



Wild rappels through the chimney section!

We coiled the ropes, distributed the gear and set off on the descent, which involved a daunting rappel sequence. These rappels were immensely cool, weaving under giant car-sized chockstones that had lodged themselves into the vast chimney system. We took a long time with the rappels due to our party’s size, but after a few hours they were done. We came back to our base bivy spot, picked up our stashed gear and began the descent hike. Tired but pleased with our straightforward and confident ascent, we headed back to camp to get some rest.



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