Trip Report: Climbing The South Face of Washington Column

Jason Ringenberg | ClimbingClimbing | Trip ReportTrip Report
Washington Column in the evening light.

I awoke to a cool and crisp spring morning in Yosemite National Park. Excitement and anticipation overwhelmed my still half asleep mind. It was finally time to begin our first big-wall climbing adventure. In the morning musings, I downed some cold medicine and threw it in our pre-packed 70 pound haul bag before driving to the backpackers camp at the back of North Pines campground. I was suffering from a nasty cold that had I no doubt acquired from a tourist I checked in at the housekeeping camp a few days prior. Great timing.

We quickly made it to the unloading area and Sean, my partner for the trip, opened the back door to the van. We promptly unloaded everything we needed for the 2 day ascent of the Column. This consisted of a baby blue haul bag filled with sleeping equipment, food, ropes, removable climbing protection, and various other gear. After getting everything sorted, we started off on the hike to the base of the climb.

Half way to the start of the route I remembered I forgot to pack the poop-tube (a bag used to carry human waste up the wall). I briefly cursed at myself for such a dumb mistake and sheepishly rode Sean’s stashed bike back to our tent to grab it. Sean decided he would continue on, carrying the unreasonably heavy haul bag to the base of the wall on his own. I would carry the rack (climbing equipment) to make the load a little easier on him. It wasn’t much easier, I imagine (sorry Sean).


Approaching the base of the route.

About 30 minutes later I met him at the base of the wall. He managed to get the bag up the heinous 4th class at the base of the climb by himself, which was certainly a crux (hard part) of the route. We suss out all the gear. stack the ropes, get the hauling system in order, and in about 10 minutes Sean is tied in and on belay. Here we go! He takes the first pitch (rope length) which is an unassuming 5.8 crack.

As he finished the pitch and tied the rope off, I followed behind on jumars (mechanical ascenders used to climb the rope) and periodically got the haul bag unstuck from various obstacles as Sean pulled it up from above. A short while later the bag and I arrived at the belay (climbing equivalent to a check point) and it was time for my lead on the next pitch. A 5.11d horribly pin scarred corner. Since I am not a Yosemite super-human and can’t free-climb this pitch with 4 sets of cams weighing me down, I got my aiders out and clipped an ungodly amount of gear to my harness before committing to the void.

This pitch was pretty slow going and a bit more challenging than I expected. Aid-climbing is a method in which the climber puts a piece of protection in the wall, clips a ladder to it, climbs the ladder, and repeats that process. It takes a bit longer than free-climbing with just hands and feet. This pitch took me 45 minutes. On reaching the belay, I tied Sean off and give him the go ahead to start climbing. Time to haul the pig! (stupidly heavy haul bag) Sean finished the pitch in much less time than it took me.

Without exchanging many words, Sean took the lead again for another 5.8 free-climbing pitch that goes up to the Dinner Ledge. We would call this spacious natural ledge our home for the night. I manage another horrendous haul and am relieved that we will be leaving the bags on the ledge with our camp for the rest of the route. No more hauling! We finished the 3rd pitch at 2:00pm which was plenty of time to fix 2 more pitches before we settle in to our cushy accommodation!

There seemed to be 2 parties ahead of us. One was a team from the San Francisco bay area, and the other a Spanish team. Both parties were in retreat off the wall. They had not made enough progress on the route in time and had to bail. We exchanged friendly words and they gave us the rest of their water and a hydration tablet for me because I was still feeling pretty sick. It worked wonders! We ate some lunch, took a swig of some wine, and geared up for the first crux pitch.


Sean enjoying a snack and looking up at the Kor-Roof.

The Kor-Roof is an overhang that resembles a visor, jutting out from the rock face above the dinner ledge. To climb it requires 3 huge lunges to clip aiders into pre-fixed bolts on the bottomside of the roof and a blind camelot placement to get over the lip. I managed the lunges without incident, though the howling wind made aider-management a bit tricky. The blind cam placement was easily the hardest move I had to do on the route. It required me to do a pull-up, lock off one arm at the elbow, and use the other arm to search for a crack to put the cam in.

After several of these pull ups I managed to jam in a yellow alien cam and clipped my aider to it. Not knowing how good this placement was, I VERY gently waited it, then gradually bounce tested it. If the cam were to pull I could potentially take a not so great looking ankle breaker fall onto a ramp so I took extreme care to make sure this thing was bomber. The cam held and with a sigh of relief I pulled myself onto the lip of the roof. First crux done! I aided the next easy section to a 2 bolt anchor. It was now time for Sean to follow my lead. Unluckily for him, it looked even harder to clean the pitch! He had to do an unnecessary amount of pull-ups and lower outs before joining me at the belay, cussing under his breath.

We suss out the the last pitch of the day, a traverse under a roof. Sean headed out on lead and gracefully sent the pitch in no time. I followed up and took a pretty large, unexpected swing when a red camelot pulled out. It was both terrifying and fun at the same time! I did one final lower-out under the roof to join Sean at the belay. We fixed the rope, then rappelled back to the now empty dinner ledge. In the morning, we will climb the rope to reach our high point and continue on.


img_2358Getting settled in for the night.

As we hit the ledge, we were amazed and delighted to have this awesome spot to ourselves in peak climbing season! We reflect on the day, made our canned ravioli dinner and drank wine while we watched alpenglow lights turn Half Dome a vibrant shade of pink right in front of us. A spectacular sight! and perfect timing on our end. All is well in the world until we heard the familiar jingling of climbing gear. We were about to have company… As the night turns dark, 2 crusty wall climbers set up on the ledge next to us. They seem friendly at first. We made small talk and announced we were getting to bed early. “Alpine start huh!?” one of them belted, and they laugh. A warning as to what would come next.

The friendliness quickly faded into extreme annoyance as they turned our peaceful ledge into an all night rager. As one could imagine, we did not sleep a wink. The alarm went off at 6:30 AM and despite not sleeping, we got to work. We choked down an avocado smeared bagel and started getting our gear sorted when it hit me. The nausea came on strong and I retired to a nearby ledge to hurl into a wag bag. The combination of no sleep, a mild wine hangover, and still being fairly ill had me feeling less than stellar. But that wasn’t stopping me! I drank some water and hit the ropes.

Sean took the lead from here because of my condition for the time being. He led out on the first pitch of the day which is the second crux. This pitch consists of an arching corner to a roof. He made good progress, moving quickly and efficiently until he disappeared from site. I was hanging at the belay, wishing to god I had shelled out the extra dough for a more comfortable harness when I heard a gasp. Sean came flying out of the sky nearly upside down! I catch the fall and immediately scream in excitement “DUDE THAT WAS A GOOD ONE!” the same yellow alien cam that had been my saving grace on the kor-roof had let Sean down, flinging him into the abyss.

We laugh it off and he continues up and finishes the pitch. I relinquished the next couple of leads to Sean and he smoothly sailed up the sea of granite, dragging me behind him. He yelled down to me how awesome the leads were and I felt regretful for giving them up. I followed the leads and the regrets got worse. We continued on, delighted in our position high on the wall and the fact that the 20% chance of thunderstorms allegedly on tap for the day had not yet appeared.


img_3203Sean getting some exposure.

We reached the belay for the second to last pitch and I decide It’s time for me to take the lead again. I scanned the topographic map of the route and it indicated a short aid section with “wild” 5.8 climbing. This should be fun! I ungracefully aided the first section and transferred into free climb mode. I clipped a fixed piton and backed it up with a purple camalot before I traversed out onto a slab. I made a mantle move and realized my aider got under my foot. Before I could correct it, I slipped and took a wild ride into open air! To my delight, the old rusty piton caught my fall nearly 1200 feet off the valley floor. Glad I backed it up, but it held! It was to this day my most memorable fall.

I finished the wild pitch, taking care to get my aiders out of the way this time. As I passed the move I fell on previously, it started to rain fairly hard. It truly was wild 5.8! I finished the pitch relieved that the rain hadn’t prevented my free climbing and I fixed the rope for Sean. He jumared the pitch instead of free climbing it because of the rain. As he neared the belay, the rain let up and Sean took the next easy-peasy victory pitch to the summit. We made it! Our first big wall!

img_2435The Author posing for a summit victory picture!

We paused at the summit for some pictures and made our way down to start the rappels. I was in quite a daze from being sick, sleep deprived, and worked. As a consequence my rope management skills suffered a bit but we made our way down smoothly. No caught ropes or heinous situations. As we made our rappels in the amazing Yosemite evening light, we realized we were definitely not going to get down before dark. However, we knew that we could reach the dinner ledge before total blackness. We may have to rappel 3 pitches in the dark, but no biggy. We had headlamps and high spirits.

As we neared the ledge we noticed the other party in a portaledge exactly 1 pitch off of the dinner ledge. We figured as much, turns out partying all night isn’t an efficient plan in wall climbing strategy! Upon reaching the dinner ledge, I called our friend Sarah to pick us up a pizza from the pizza deck and some victory beer as we were certainly not going to hit the ground before the Valley restaurants and stores closed. She agreed and indicated that she and the rest of our friends were watching from the meadow. I shined my headlamp at them to show them where we were.

Sean took the haul bag and clipped it to his harness and we rappelled the last 3 pitches in the dark. Which I must say felt pretty cool! Upon hitting the ground, we hugged it out and celebrated our victory! Sean, anxious to get back for pizza, raced off out of sight to hop on his stashed bike. Sarah, accompanied with our friend Claire, picked me up at the backpackers camp and we headed back to the tent to gorge on a pineapple pizza, Sean’s favorite.

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