Three Days on the Column Pt. 1

The bus rolled slowly to a stop as the bus driver politely announced, “Stop 17, Mirror Lake.” This was our stop. The bus was crowded, forcing us to occupy the space at the very front of the shuttle. I did my best to give myself a wide berth as Lis readied herself to throw her stubby haulbag over her back and vacate the bus. She drew quite a bit of attention as she threw the sixty-some odd heavy-duty bag of food and sleeping gear over her shoulder and, with surprising elegance, slipped quietly past the giggling on-lookers. The foreign faces then turned their amused gaze to where I stood, like a stage performer, at the front of the bus with a bag containing one half of three days worth of supplies needed to sleep on a wall comfortably, and two trekking poles. Quietly, I grabbed the shoulder straps and positioned my thigh under the center of mass of the load and sat it on my left leg, followed by slipping my left arm under a shoulder strap and throwing the bag on my back as I stood up. Finding my balance while simultaneously staggering forward, I stumbled toward the mass of onlookers whose faces unanimously changed to a look of terror as they began to wonder if the dude with the beard and a huge bag was about to spill onto their laps. Despite their greatest concerns, I wobbled my way out of the vehicle and immediately threw the load on the wooden bench under the awning.

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Yosemite Valley! Because where else can you take a bus ride to a big wall?

I sipped from my Nalgene before cramming it into my small, green Black Diamond back pack which I would wear on my chest for the approach, and extended my trekking poles in preparation for the walk. A man and his son asked a few questions as we struggled to finely adjust our packs, and we were soon marching toward Mirror Lake. Through the trees, Washington Column beckoned us from above like a lighthouse. We were marching toward adventure, we were marching toward an experience which promised to either destroy us, or bring us closer together than either of us knew was possible. One foot in front of the other, we walked side by side towards this welcomed adventure as my trekking poles noisily clacked against the asphalt.

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The whole kit-and-kabootle, ladies and gentlemen. Take not of Lis’ lean to compensate for the weight on her back.

Lis Cordner and I walked in stride as we made our way to the start of the approach trail which leads us to the East Wall of Washington Column. Her pace is naturally the same as mine, and we easily walked down the road in stride. As every adventure goes, the road will eventually turn to trail, and the going will get more strenuous. We took our time as we scrambled up the small talus field below the Column, stopping regularly in isolated shady spots and getting occasionally blasted by the cold air billowing from deep within the Earth through the porous talus. We were soon on top of the talus field, taking a long rest in the flat area where the trail meets the sheer wall. The going was smooth, as is expected with someone with as easy-going of a demeanor as Lis, who had yet to stop smiling since we arrived in Yosemite. When we were ready, the bags were thrown one at a time on our backs, and we were again trudging up the loose approach trail. The sun was starting to get quite hot.

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Even mid-suffer, this girl will find something to smile about.
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Taking a break near the very base of Washington Column.  The wall to the left towers over 1,200 feet above us here.

Since we were climbing a popular route in peak climbing season, I should have predicted the usual crowds and shenanigans that occur when lots of people who don’t know each other come to the same place to jockey for position like a one-lane road race. That being said, I was caught somewhat off-guard when we arrived at the base of the route. Waiting for us at the corner marking the start of the South Face were two different parties doing their best to get to the front of the line. One party had arrived shortly before us, two dudes from England. Another party, a party of six, loafed around about their gear as one climber made his way slowly up the corner to the right of the South Face. According to his posse, this guy totally thought he was in the correct place to start the South Face route. We were going to be here for a while. We threw our haulbags on the ground, and took seats next to each other.  Above us sat an empty first pitch, and around us sat seven quiet and antisocial people. Lis was laughing, I think.

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Powering through the exposed slab before the start of the route with Half Dome creating a stunning background. If you look closely, you can see the scar from the July 2015 rockfall which changed the Regular Northwest Face.

We drank some water and ate some bars as we sat discussing our options.  As we sat, I sparked up a conversation with the two guys who showed up just before us.  I can’t for the life of me remember their names, but they told us that they were thinking of leaving their stuff where it was, bivying, and trying again in the morning. We enjoyed hearing this. We enjoyed hearing this a lot. We sat in the shade of the oak trees awhile, relishing in the fact that the first pitch could be ours for the taking. The guy in the off-corner complained of being super dehydrated. Lis and I moved our bags one at a time closer to the route and we began chatting with the group of climbers lounging below us.

You guys know he’s not on the correct start, right?” I said to the belayer. Behind him, a bald guy stood up.

Yes, we know. He’s going to lower down to the slab when he gets past this corner.” He was referring to the huge slab you have to traverse just below the ledge above the first pitch.

Well if you don’t mind, she and I are going to slip by you guys, since it’s just the two of us. I’ll be freeing the first three pitches so we’ll be out of your way.”

I’d rather you not. I really don’t want to get stuck behind you guys.” The climber above us made some more noises, and then asked to come down to swap leads with someone else.

I promise you that you won’t get behind us. I’m not aiding a thing until tomorrow, and again, it’s just her and I. There are six of you guys.”

Well, I’m also worried about the number of people on Dinner Ledge. I don’t want it to be crowded.” Another person in his group now stood up in our defense, pleading with his partner that he let us pass without issue.

Okay, well we’re just going to go up and check it out. If it’s too crowded, we’ll fix our lines to Dinner Ledge and come back tomorrow.” The other guy in the party (I wish I could remember his name) agreed with us to his buddy, who I could tell was incredibly pissed about the whole situation.

Well I don’t want to get behind you guys on the second pitch.” Apparently, he thought I was going to aid through the huge 5.11 corner above the ledge. He struggled to understand that I wasn’t going to be aid climbing.

Again, I’m not aiding the second pitch, I’m freeing it. If it’s too crowded up there, I have no problem fixing my lines and coming back tomorrow.” I was going to start climbing either way, no matter what he said at this point.

He agreed with me finally, and I hopped over to Lis to begin getting the haulbags ready to go. Before I fully got into go-time, I turned once again to the bald man. “O, and if it turns out that you get stuck behind me and I’m the asshole, I’m sorry.” He stared at me in disbelief. His face said both, “Did he just say what I think he said” and “I’m going to punch this guy in the face.” Lis and I both simultaneously broke into laughter, and we prepped the haulbags and harnessed up in record time. Out of the nine people goofing around below the route, Lis and I were by far having the most fun that afternoon.

The idea to climb a big wall together came six months before this point, just after Lis and I first met. Since we seemed to enjoy each others’ company and also enjoyed climbing quite a bit, setting out for three days on a wall seemed like a natural progression. I don’t remember if it was her idea or mine to climb a wall, but I think it was mine to climb the route we were on. For six months we talked about this day which was unfolding before our eyes. So many questions, so much preparation. And here we were, harnessing up, racking up, flaking ropes, and prepping haulbags to be dragged up a 1,200-foot rock. The excitement is always overwhelming when embarking on something you’ve looked forward to for some time. It never completely feels real, but damn does it feel good to pause and remind ourselves how real it is. A dream truly about to come to fruition and unfolding before our eyes. The next three days were going to bring us closer than we could ever imagine, and we both knew it.

Our harnesses were on now, and the late summer sun shone down brightly. It was about two o’clock now, which meant that the afternoon updrafts would be in full swing. I tied into the lead line. Above us, I saw trees and bushes dancing around the breeze from their purchases on the small ledges and cracks of the cliff. I could not wait to feel that wind again. Lis was ready now. She smiled at me as she reached behind her to grab her GriGri, peering then upward toward Dinner Ledge, some three hundred feet above us. “Are you nervous?” I asked her as she clipped the belay device to her belay loop.

A little bit, but I’m ready.”

Good. You’re going to crush it, Lis. Remember, we’re not focusing on the summit, we’re moving one pitch at a time.” I chalked up my hands. The woman who had taken over for the succumbed climber next to us, was almost to her partner’s highpoint; opting to use the gear her partner had placed to re-aid the pitch. Lis and I kept laughing at each other.

You are on belay!”

For what?” I asked her while recording the moment with my small digital camera. I wanted to explode with joy.

For the South Face of Washington Column!” The words fit the moment as accurately and perfectly as ever could be. But still, hard to believe. I gave her a kiss before turning to face the route, exhaling deeply as I placed my hands in the crack.

Alright, Lis! Climbing the South Face of Washington Column!”

I was now climbing. Up the first corner I went, moving smoothly and precisely for the first thirty feet before the steepness drops off drastically and the corner becomes a huge slab. I traversed left across the low-angle slab, placing gear as often as I could to protect Lis when she cleaned the pitch, and was soon at the large ledge above pitch 1. “I’m off belay, Lis!” “You’re off belay, Christian!” And just like that, all the planning, all the anticipation, all the questions, and all the necessary prep work was now behind us and we were climbing the wall. Lis, who had only learned to jumar the day prior, was now quickly making her way up as she smoothly cleaned the pitch behind me. Behind her, the lady who had taken lead for the forsaken party repeatedly shouted “Slack! Slack!”

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Elisabeth cleaning the first pitch with a struggling climber figuring it out behind her.

A party of two ladies rapped their way down to the ledge as I hauled our pigs up the awful first pitch. Soon, they were standing next to me, asking if I cared if they rappelled as I hauled. “Not even a little,” I said to them between pants. We talked for a while, and I asked them the condition of Dinner Ledge, fully expecting them to tell me that the thing was packed with gumbos. To my surprise, they told me that there was only one party on Dinner Ledge at the moment, and they seemed to be confident climbers. One party. Confident climbers. I couldn’t believe it. I must have asked her two or three times to make sure I was understanding her properly. Behind her, two more dudes came down, and the four of them easily slipped past Lis and I as we organized the mess of ropes and gear at the anchor in preparation to schlep our haulbags across the ledge.

Pitch 2 is an incredible pitch in-and-of itself. Immediately off the belay, you climb up a small ramp with a thin finger crack leading up and right from the top of the pile of rocks. A red nut protects this section perfectly, the crux coming in the form of huge exposure below your heels. To me, one of the appeals of this pitch is the fact that you are immediately slapped in the face with exposure on steep and beautiful rock. The finger crack lives on a super steep part of the wall, some three hundred feet straight above where Lis and I had rested our bones during the approach. An incredible view of Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest accompany the fresh air, and the movement required to climb this section is incredibly empowering.

The crack meanders nicely upward, and steepens at a pillar where the crack widens to an incredible hand-to-fist crack. It’s essential to stop at a rest on this section and take in the scenery. Below me, Lis peered up at me with her usual smile under her green and white Black Diamond helmet and matching green trucker’s hat labeled “Schlitterbahn.” Behind her, distant oak trees frolicked in the afternoon breeze. The updrafts will usually accompany climbers here, making the moment more powerful and real with each and every powerful gust. The crack itself allows the most satisfying handjams to find incredible purchase, like hunks of meat wedging themselves into a constriction. The crack widens a bit at the top, allowing mighty fists to inflate perfectly in the spacious fracture. One or two moves later I found myself standing below the amazing and clean 5.10 corner below the anchor bolts. Out of sight of Lis now, I placed a yellow Mastercam as high as I could, wrapped my fingers around the rock, straightened my arms, and moved my right foot high on the wall in front of me with my left hip flat against the rock to my side as I transitioned to a layback. This section was at one time incredibly intimidating to me, forcing me to bust out my ladders on previous attempts. I now moved slowly and precisely through this corner, loving each and every move more and more the higher I went. Then, as always, I was at the anchors preparing myself to haul the bags and fix the lead line to allow Lis to join me at the beautiful perch I found myself standing on. I’m sure that Lis absolutely loved jugging this stellar pitch.

The steep, stellar 5.10 layback corner just before the belay on Pitch 2. List must have loved jugging this awesome pitch!
The steep, stellar 5.10 layback corner just before the belay on Pitch 2. List must have loved jugging this awesome pitch!

We were moving quickly. It had only been about an hour and a half since we abandoned the group of pilgrims below, trying their absolute best to make their way up the first pitch. The sun was now making its way around the formation, and much-appreciated shade accompanied us at our stance. The bags were docked, the ropes were freshly organized, and I had the gear I needed for this third pitch dangling quietly from my harness. Lis clipped her belay device to her belay loop, passed my end of the rope through it, and I clipped my end to a biner attached to one of the anchor bolts. There was now nothing stopping me from continuing up this third pitch to Dinner Ledge, a huge sandy thing capable of sleeping something like twelve people (no thanks!). I stood there for a moment and looked at Lis, her expressionless face showing concentration as she double-checked her system and the ropes. I saw her concentration turn to me momentarily, then back to her rope, then back to me in a double-take. At the same moment, her expressionless face became the smile I have frequently referred to. I leaned in, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and started my way up the last pitch of the day.

The third pitch was soon behind me for the most part, and I scrambled up the last forty feet to the anchors on the East side of the ledge. Two guys were on the large portion of the ledge to my left, and I let out a “whoop!” to announce that we had arrived. They turned to me, smiling and laughing. They, too, let out a “whoop!” as I clipped into the anchor and told Lis to take me off belay.

Arriving at Dinner Ledge with Lis cruising up to me. This pitch is as much fun to jug as it is to haul.
Arriving at Dinner Ledge with Lis cruising up to me. This pitch is as much fun to jug as it is to haul.

You guys are from Tahoe??” I asked them as I rigged the haul system. One of the climbers below told me that someone up here was from Tahoe.

Yeah! Are you?” One of them asked me.

Yeah, I’m Christian, I’m from South Lake!”

My name’s Harris, I’m from Truckee!”

I’m Adam, I’m his room mate!”

Harris. I know Harris! From years ago, we had met a few times at the gym and had climbed at River Rock. I hadn’t seen him in something like three years.

Holy shit, Harris!? It’s Christian Cattell!”

He laughed in disbelief with the usual “Ho-Ly Shit!”

And just like that, an old friendship had been rekindled on the face of a silent and timeless rock. Yosemite Valley always has a profound way of doing these kinds of strange and unpredictable things to us.

Lis arrived shortly thereafter, grabbing the smaller of the two haulbags as she made her way to the larger part of the ledge across a narrow catwalk. With the promise of an awesome night in an awesome location in the very near future, I was quick to de-rig the haul system and carry my gear to where the others were getting to know each other. We had finally arrived at a place that until then was merely a dream. And now, it was time to enjoy every single second of it.

Lis enjoying a Moscow Mule with my man Harris enjoying the view. A scene very similar to this lasted for hours. Hours.
Lis enjoying a Moscow Mule with my man Harris enjoying the view. A scene very similar to this lasted for hours. Hours.  Rocks make fine stuff-holders.

The best part of arriving early to a bivy site on a wall is the chance to sit back and do absolutely nothing for as long as you want. And we did just that. Dinner Ledge is a huge and comfy ledge. The fact that it was only the four of us offered us the chance to take up as much room as we wanted and sprawl out. We started things off right with a mandatory safety meeting. As Lis and I sat sorting gear, Harris and Adam made the most of the early evening by fixing their rope to the top of the Kor Roof (the first pitch after Dinner Ledge goes over a massive roof, called the Kor Roof) and we sat back and watched the action as Harris went on to lead this somewhat brutal pitch. Before too long, Lis and I had all of our chores completed, and we sat against the wall, eating our dinner of soup and ramen and drinking our water as the day slowly began to enter the early stages of night. The tunes Harris had were blaring loudly as he made his way to the Alcove 150 feet above our heads. Adam belayed Harris with his back against the large boulder in front of us. I don’t think Lis or I moved for almost two hours.

Adam cleaning the Kor Roof pitch with the wind tossing him about.
Adam cleaning the Kor Roof pitch with the wind tossing him about.

The wind was still ripping in the space just beyond the ledge, as evidenced by the large tree which was violently swaying in the breeze; causing beams of light to dance about Dinner Ledge around us. Just beyond the safety of the sandy ledge, swifts danced and darted around the moving air. It will never cease to amaze me to watch these birds, who frequently fly within feet of our heads on these walls with an almost near-supersonic pop, never to be seen. They live their lives in the open space between these stone giants, frolicking and playing in their swift ways. They chirp and dance and fly at incredible rates absolutely effortlessly, riding the afternoon updrafts like invisible, giant waves. Below us, the Valley began to look like a model train set; the trees now fuzzy plastic things and Tenaya Creek a green glass replica of the cold stream. Half Dome was changing, dawning a veil of bright and powerful gold which offset the greens and blacks which populated the flat and darkening Valley below. With the sun mostly to our backs now, the day was slowly cooling off. The evening was slowing down and there was an incredible peace.

Washington Column sunset. Take note of the little notch on the shadow. That is Dinner Ledge.
Washington Column sunset. Take note of the little notch on the shadow. That is Dinner Ledge.

The evening slowly progressed as we sat on the ledge, all four of us now, listening to the Grateful Dead and enjoying each moment in their entirety. We sat on the huge sandy perch together, a little drunk thanks to Harris’ Moscow Mules, and slowly got tired as we laughed our way into the silent, calm night. The sky was a dark blue, with a few stars beginning to reveal themselves, and the moon slowly making its way from its hiding place behind Half Dome. At some point, Lis and I made our way to the smaller Honeymoon Ledge located just above Dinner Ledge, right on the very precipice of the steepest part of the wall. A short scramble brought us to the ledge just big enough to fit the two of us comfortably, where I threw down my tarp, our pads, sleeping bags and all the other things we needed to sleep comfortably. From this ledge, a mere turn of our heads offered us more than 180* of view, framed on the flanks by both Half Dome and El Capitan to the west. The Western Valley was perfectly silhouetted against a fleeting and distant sunset.

The view of Half Dome from our bedroom the following morning was one to be proud of. Lis enjoys some coffee from the comfort of her sleeping bag.
The view of Half Dome from our bedroom the following morning was one to be proud of. Lis enjoys some coffee from the comfort of her sleeping bag.

We crawled into our sleeping bags as the night finally laid claim to Yosemite Valley. We said goodnight after the usual late night talks, and I gave her one last kiss before zipping myself into my own sack. As I laid there in my sleeping bag looking up at the wall towering and glowing brightly above us from the half moon to the south, the standard uncertainty began to creep into my sleepy mind. What if something happens? What if I do something stupid and we have to bail? What if I get hurt? What if she gets hurt? What if she does something stupid and we have to bail? What if I’m not strong enough to lead her up the wall? The wall stared quietly back. I don’t know how long I laid there questioning my own abilities. It must have been awhile, because when I next looked over at the sleeping beauty next to me, she was fast asleep in a deep and beautiful slumber. The moonlight illuminated her soft face which poked out of her blue sleeping bag.  Her sleeping bag moved rhythmically and slowly up and down with each deep breath. If she was ready to commit herself to the wall and trusted me enough to teach her what she needed to know to get to the top and back down safely, than so was I.

Bats chirped and clicked around the ledge as they hunted small bugs and insects of the night. I focused my gaze on the wall above us once again, and relished in the moment. We were exactly where we had wanted to be for months, sleeping soundly on a ledge hundreds of feet above the ground. It was only her and I, and the next morning promised to bring with it lots of climbing, and the potential for an amazing summit.  Eventually, my mind went silent, and I slowly drifted off to sleep.

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