Alone on the Westie Face

An impromptu rope solo free ascent of a 5.13a Yosemite Wall

May 2023

On the second-to-last pitch of Leaning Tower, I find myself dangling off a left heel-toe foot cam in a pod above my head, hoping to take weight off two greasy hand jams. This would usually be a comfortable sized crack, except that it is flared and overhanging by 45 degrees. I alternate chalking up my hands and take a few deep breaths while looking straight down to the talus 900 feet below. I cinch a bit of slack through the GriGri at my waist - I am on the sharp end, rope solo free climbing the wall. I maintain composure and onsight yet another 5.12 pitch. Only one more to go! 

The route I am attempting to free is the Westie Face in Yosemite, going up one of the steepest walls in the country. Somehow, there are enough features (or, enough pin scars creating artificial holds..) to keep the difficulties at 5.13- and below. The 1000’ route begins with a 200’ aid bolt ladder pitch, but then is a free climb the rest of the way with pitches checking in at 5.12b, 5.13a, 5.12b, 5.12a, 5.11c, 5.12c, then 5.12a.

Cleaning yet another steep pitch, the second to last 5.12

I didn’t really intend to be up here free climbing alone.. but this Yosemite season was a bit of a bust. My hopes were for a few partnered missions this season up El Cap free routes and shorter 5.13 multipitch day lines. A historic snow year in the Sierra foiled these ideas. As late as the beginning of May, there were still ample reports of wet streaks down most routes. 

Two weeks into May, I finally heard of dry routes, but unfortunately summer temperatures had begun! I decided to drive out on a whim despite low 80’s in the valley and no locked-in partners, committing to at least a week trip to see what I may be able to climb. 

The most promising formation was the Leaning Tower. As a pinnacle detached from the greater-mountain, it had less water seepage than other formations. It also held morning shade. I was most interested in checking out Wet Lycra Nightmare, a 13d route that splits off from the Westie Face. After bouldering and chatting around at Camp 4, but finding no other interested parties, I decided I’d pack a full 6 days of supplies and climb the route alone to explore and rehearse the hardest pitches.

Bags in space.. this is how far out they swing out while hauling the bolt ladder pitch! 

This spring I have been lead rope soloing quite a bit - partially to find extra challenges locally, and partially to prep for future solo options like this Leaning Tower outing. I was ready to aid climb pitches if necessary, but I did think I had a chance of sending some of the harder pitches alone on lead. I’ve recently ticked some cool lines around Flagstaff in this lead rope solo style:

-Total Recall 5.13c (single pitch sport route)

-Golden Dog 5.13a (5 pitch sport route, onsight)

-Booty on the Bounty 5.13a (single pitch trad route with thin gear)

and quite a few other 5.12 to 12+ cragging routes

Over two prep days I shuttled way-too-much gear to the route and also fixed a line up the bolt ladder "approach" pitch. I slept at the base of the route to gain an early start for the first free climbing day, onsighting the 12b stems of pitch one for breakfast at 5:30am. The 13a second pitch took a second try to climb cleanly, but I had all of my supplies up to the large Ahwahnee Ledge by 9am. This is where Wet Lycra splits off of from the Westie Face route. I realized I had already sent the Westie Face crux pitch! If needed, I could bail up that route instead as a consolation prize. This seemed likely as conditions were horribly sweaty already.

The spacious Ahwanhee Ledge, about 350' up the route 

I spent the last few hours of shade that first day working out a 12d stem pitch of Wet Lycra within a few top rope laps. By 1pm, the sun comes around and turns the whole wall into a solar oven. I deployed my portaledge to create an excessively heavy sun blocker, and sat underneath it for the next 7 hours.. Perhaps late spring isn’t the best time for these routes. I had been warned of this.

A shady hole to wait in

The next morning I optimistically checked out the short 13d crux bulge just above the 12d stem pitch. It only took about 10 minutes of hanging around touching the V9 sloper holds to decide my limit-bouldering effort would be futile. I rapped back down to Ahwahnee ledge. Westie Face it is! I regrouped to go out this other route and managed to onsight a wild 12b ramp pitch and a thin 12a R seam by 10am. With ample supplies way up this wild wall, I fixed a rope back down to the big ledge and stretched my ascent into the next day. That afternoon felt like I was stranded on a desert island, sitting alone on the ledge for 10 hours, just waiting to climb again.. I usually enjoy ledge life on multi-day ascents, but the heat was debilitating. 

I woke up early again the third day to maximize the shade hours. Early morning, however, is especially stagnant. Without even a breeze, I ate breakfast comfortably in a t-shirt at 5am. I had yet to put on a sweater or jacket this ascent. 

The very cool 12b ramp pitch

Beach vibes all afternoon on Ahwanhee

I jugged up my fixed rope to resume climbing at the last three pitches. All three could be summed up as climbing steep and jumbled flare cracks, filled with a good amount of bird poop, while dripping with sweat. A friend described the Westie Face to me as an aid route that happens to go free - I agree with the assessment.. The route gets stars for the wild positions and novel pitches, but I am not sure many of them would see action at a crag. I managed to onsight the rest of my way to the summit, thankful to not need to reclimb anything.

The last pitch - see the hanging rope for the orientation of gravity

I topped out at 9:30am this third day, freeing the route as a lead rope solo ascent. I was excited to have onsighted everything besides the 13a crux pitch. I left my wall camping supplies back down on Ahwahnee ledge, so I rappelled the steep wall maintaining huge swings to be able to catch each anchor and not get stuck in space. 

Me and my friend El Cap 

It turned out to be a bit of a goofy ascent, but I am glad I came out and went for something. After reaching the cliff base, I completed one last chore for the solo climb and shuttled all my heavy gear to the car in two hikes. I’ve become notorious for hitting the road as soon as I get down from a climb, but it just seemed too illogical to drive back into the valley to unload and camp, only to leave after an uneventful rest day or two.. Like usual, I loaded up my Prius and hit the road for Flagstaff, getting back at home to the fresh smell of Ponderosa pines in my neighborhood at 1am. That was enough greasy granite for my season! 

One last look at the Leaning Tower