“Do you want to do leaning tower in a day?” was the question. An enthusiastic “yeah that would be cool!” was the reply.
That was all that constituted the brief exchange that, at 5 am the next morning, saw me perched on a narrow ledge in Yosemite Valley, belaying a head torch bobbing steadily higher and higher. On the past two walls that lamp would have been attached to Andy Cherry, but this time and quite unexpectedly, it was a Petzl Nao, fixed to the head of the man himself, Andy Kirkpatrick.
The initial excitement of being offered the chance to climb with him gave way to nervousness that we might not be up to it, be too slow or just generally piss him off. By the second belay I feared this was exactly what was happening. We’d spectacularly cats-cradled the haul and lead lines together causing Captain Kirk to look down and questioningly state that he couldn’t move. Hasty apologies followed as AC and I scrambled to tidy up the mess, suggesting a multitude of solutions AC eventually told me to shut up and belay and he’d sort it. Soon enough we were well on our way, Andy K cruising through the first six pitches while we jugged and cleaned in his wake savouring the experience and, having finally worked out the climbing-as-a-three-system, quickly forgot the embarrassment of the tangle.
While Cherry fired pitch seven – another steep roof on lots of flexing pegs – I sat and belayed in the sun. With AK as a thoroughly entertaining belay companion Cherry’s pitch flew by and Andy was soon smiling gleefully as he lowered me out into space for another airy and rather bouncy free hanging jug. After my pitch of a steep crack and another roof I mantled out the top bivvy ledge in the late afternoon sun, called that the lines were fixed and pulled out a cliff bar. Above me was the last pitch, below was the steepest wall in North America and in front was Yosemite Valley. I munched on the bar and felt awash with a warm glow.
Cherry’s lower-out jibbers and the sound of rope scraping over a sharp edge brought me back to the moment, quickly redirecting the haul line to something less ruinous I waited for Andy and Andy to appear over their respective edges. We spent little time on the actual summit – it’s more of a ridge than a summit – and the ominously approaching thunderstorm made us all a bit keen to get down. 8 raps down a precariously loose gully popped us out at our previous night bivvy spot. Another half an hour and we were back in the car on south side drive gunning for the pizza deck.
Beyond our wildest expectations for the trip, we’d done a wall in under 12 hours with one of the people who’d originally inspired us to go to Valley. He even bought the pizza. What a dude.
Climbing, particularily Big Wall Climbing, is a game of trust. We get by placing trust in our friends, our partners, our own strengths and occasionally – rusty pegs. Will that cam hold? Will they fall? Can I hold that? Can they do this?
It wasn’t hard for us to place trust in Andy. We’d read his books, followed his articles and been to his talks. We saw an opportunity to climb a bigwall with one of our heroes and we took it.
For Andy it was very different – he was climbing with strangers! Novices no doubt; perhaps idiots? For starters they sure as hell didn’t know how to untangle a rope. Andy took a leap of faith, and he placed trust in us. He wanted to get to the top of the leaning tower too, and when he handed us the reigns at pitch 6 he trusted us to get there.
Less than an hour later, (definitely an aid climbing speed record for me) when my two climbing partners emerged at the top of pitch 7, both breathing heavily and exclaiming “f**cking hell that was steep!”, I felt as though I could stay on this wall forever, with these friends, playing this game.
Andy taught us more than just a few little Aid climbing and rope untangling lessons – he gave us confidence. He’d said “yeah, we can do it!” and together we had. He’d taught us that the crazy ideas are sometimes the best ideas.
We returned to the valley floor feeling stronger and more confident than ever despite the hunger and the fatigue. This trip was almost at an end but it seems like our Bigwalling adventures have just begun.
Where next? What next? And how many cans of coke will we need?