“Yeah yeah, we’ll take a load of water, a load of food and we’ll just climb nice and slow and bivy on the big ledges. It’ll be really chilled out!”
This was the Plan. A ‘chilled out’ ascent of the Washington Column with plenty of extra water, 5 easy pitches a day and big comfy bivy ledges along the way. In all fairness, the pitches were quite easy, there weren’t many of them, and the bivy ledges are absolutely luxurious – and scenic as hell! But you can never really ‘cruise’ up a big wall. It’s never gunna be relaxing, and it’s always going to be hard work!
In classic style we started the approach in the midday heat, moaned a bit, and then whipped up the first 3 pitches to get to the dinner ledge. ‘Great bivy for 6’ or, an absolute bivy mansion for 2! Stefan then lead and fixed the next two pitches in the inexplicably sudden and wild Yosemite valley wind, and we rapped down for a 3 course meal carefully prepared on the appropriately named ledge – each course with added grit (This time, a can of tea with powdered milk served as a sophisticated aperitif as surveyed the valley below).
All this coincided well with a fairly substantial, 8000acre forest fire, which an ill-mannered bolt of lightning had started over the back of half dome. The Yosemite skies were punctuated with helicopters chopping to and from the fire, dumping fire crews and water. People were evacuated from half dome as the valley filled with thick smoke, and the air started to feel thin.
When we woke up in the morning on the dinner ledge, we couldn’t see half dome, or glacier point. In fact, the smoke was so thick we could barely see anything about the valley, so we decided to crack right on and jug up to pitch 6. I’d barely started the Pitch when we heard monkey calls from just below us – Wall Monkeys!
Hooting, shouting, and rock music crept closer and closer until Joe and Dave – two eccentric and incredibly PSYCHED wall monkeys hit our belay. We were more than happy to let them past, pulling through on our gear. Joe – a gangly figure with long black hair and dressed almost entirely in tie-dye – fired through Pitch 6 and met me at the belay, swung two lockers of his harness, pulled through 20 metres of slack, tied off, shouted down to Dave, fist bumped me and then immediately began the thin crack above, clipping no gear with a 20 metre loop hanging underneath him. He seemed be falling upwards through his aiders, barely staying on the wall as he danced and sang along to the Jimmy Hendrix playing though the ghetto blaster clipped to his harness. About 5 minutes later, Dave jugged up to me, introduced himself, high fived me and then jugged right through.
These guys were pretty inspirational, not just in their speed and efficiency but in their total psyche for being on the wall, they were loving it! Music blasting, monkey calls at every belay. Being surrounded by smoke, helicopters and rock music made for a pretty awesome morning – “its like something out of a Vietnam war film!” – as we led neatly through the next few pitches – until pitch 8. Joe had given us a heads-up “dude the awesome hand crack is awesome, but the chimney kinda blows hard”. The topo gave us a heads-up too “Loose 5.8 chimney”.
It’s a 5.8 chimney, how hard can it be?
Andrew still maintains that this is the hardest thing he’s ever lead in Yosemite. Dragging a Yosemite rack and two ropes up the glossy chimney, backed with loose sandy blocks and offering little in the hope of solid protection was indeed as hard as it could be. This was just another one of Yosemite’s little ‘lessons’ for UK climbers. Unless you actively seek out loose, slick chimneys in the UK, and wriggle up them carrying everything you own – you may be surprised by how awkward and terrifying a pitch of 5.8 can be!
This led quickly to the ‘Sandy cheese gully of death’ and then eventually what must be the best bivy so far, the Column summit. A full 360 view of Yosemite valley and all its famous rock formations, and a really cool cairn shaped like a little man. Someone had even stashed some extra water for us. We lay down and listened to a little 90’s rock (inspired by Joe and Dave) and more tinned peaches.
The Column was definitely a lot more accommodating than El Cap, but was not without its difficulties. The two are pretty dissimilar, and Washington column was quite a different experience, with a lot more chilling out, a lot more rock and roll, and a lot more sand.