Soloing Washington Column

© full stottie
North Dome and Washington Column  © full stottie
North Dome and Washington Column
© full stottie, May 2006

Foolish solo manoeuvres are often inspired by some relationship angst. Scaring the crap out of yourself cuts through layers of pettiness to the core of our existence. This was one of those "girlfriend solos". I was looking for an adventure that would help untie my obsessions. Something I had previously soloed would be too predictable to have the desired effect. Unfortunately, most of the routes I hadn't soloed were unexplored for a reason. I hadn't heard of anyone climbing the Direct Route on Washington Column (5.7) There was no topo available for it. Over a dozen pitches of cracks and chimneys, the Direct Route (in the goldline rope days) used to be one of the most popular routes in the Valley. I figured, "How bad could it be.?"

I removed a page out of the old Roper guide that described the route, and headed for the stone. The beginning of the route wandered a bit but was innocuous enough. It was a beautiful day and my mind immediately settled into the concentrated rhythm of route-finding and moving on the rock. Route-finding was a continual issue. There always seemed to be a couple cracks to choose from. I looked for fixed gear, worn lichen, pin scars and other tell tale signs of a once-popular route in an attempt not to get check-mated by some dead end choice.

I climbed higher and higher. Eventually, I found myself climbing a couple pitches of 5.8 on ball-bearing rotten granite. Climbing over the expected grade of a route is usually a bad sign in the world of onsight soloing. I consoled myself with the fact that, if Steck Salathe is any indicator, 5.7 used to count some pretty burly pitches amongst its members. This route was definitely "Old School."

The dicey pitches ended at a ledge where I could take stock of my situation. I was about 800 feet off the deck. The cracks above me looked highly unlikely. The higher I looked, the worse things looked. Enough doubt arose in me to scout the rock far to the right. I had a moment of breathless realization when I recognized the landmark "Great Chimney" of the Direct route about 100 feet to my right. UUUHHH..... How to get there? There was no way to reach the passage of salvation. I would have to down-climb the dicey, rotten, 5.8 pitches to get back on the route. UUUHHHH000....Checkmate!!!??

When soloing I try to keep the down-climb-ability of the route in mind while proceeding. I remember several points of acknowledging passing the point of no return in reaching my present location. A sense of doom was closing in on me. Down-climbing 5.8 was one thing, down-climbing the rotten, insecure mess that I was facing was quite another. Before kissing my ass goodbye, I carefully explored every conceivable option, no matter how crazy. I should probably be ashamed that calling for help was quickly passed over as the option of choice, even if I died as an alternative.

I started wrapping my mind around the craziest option of all.

I saw that I was about 35 feet above a small sandy ledge that led over to the chimney. If I could get to that ledge, I would be as saved as a man could get who was still below the crux while soloing a 1200 foot route. The face between myself and the ledge was nearly vertical. There were some very small features on the vertical wall. I chose my poison and decided further explore the madness.

I had a few nuts, a couple of runners, and a 2 inch swami just in case I needed to hang or cheat. I took off the swami, tied it to the runners, and attached it all to a small RP Brass nut.

I prayed, repented, and did feverish incantations; then I placed the brass nut in a crack and hand-over-handed down the webbing to its end, which was still 22 feet over the ledge. I found a stance on a tiny foothold. I was still too far above the ledge to jump. Climbing back up the webbing and down-climbing the route seemed like suicide at the time. There was a tiny crack behind a flake by my chest though. I made a commitment.

I grabbed the flake for support and started whipping the webbing wildly back and forth, over and over. I don't know how long I whipped the webbing around. I had just made a leap of faith and I would whip the damn webbing around for as long as it took. Eventually, I was blessed with the requested miracle and the brass nut came flying out of the upper crack! I was now in possession of the whole rig once again! I placed the brass nut in the flake in front of me, tested it lightly, and once again hand over handed myself down to the end of the webbing.

I was now at the moment of truth. My feet were still about 10 feet above the ledge (my wide eyes were almost 16 feet above it!) There were no more holds of any kind. I couldn't dream of reversing my course. My only choice was to fly! Hanging by one hand at the end of the webbing, I took aim for the ledge with the awareness that tumbling over the edge of it would entail an additional 800 feet of flying. 10 feet was enough. I programmed my legs to absorb the shock on impact, took a deep breath and...

A misty Yosemite Valley
© LiannaB, Sep 2006

I found my self crouched on the ledge and, after a short time, realized that I didn't break my ankles when I hit. It's impossible to relive or relate the relief I must have felt. The 5.7 crux chimney seemed like the secure womb of my gracious mother after the ordeal I had undergone. I was feeling totally redeemed when the chimney spit me out into a wide brushy area near the top of the formation.

The problem was, there was still a steep pitch up a headwall between me and the very top. There were four or five possible cracks to choose from and they all looked hard. One must be 5.7, but which one? The most promising one looked like the most committing. After another imaginary chess game in my mind, I chose my crack, made my moves, and won the match.

Like many games, the reward for victory was intangible (except for the survival part) Naturally, I swore off the route. That is, until a number of years later when I forgot my pain and soloed it again. With better route-finding, I enjoyed the adventure more than the first time (which isn't saying much) I remember bridging across the rotten Fat Man Chimney and being grateful for my life and the people who loved and supported me. As even more years have passed, I've learned to appreciate life and love without contrasting it so sharply with the alternatives. I hope the same for you as well.

Karl Baba describes himself:

I have lived and climbed in Yosemite for the vast majority of my adult life. (You have to be generous with your standards of "adulthood" here.) I passionately love the mountains and especially the Yosemite area.

I worked for 15 years in human resources and employee Housing for the park concessionaire. In 1997, following the devastating floods and their economic consequences, Yosemite Concession Services elected to downsize my position.

This turn of events inspired me to seek a more free and creative lifestyle. I don't blame my old company, and I don't think they blame me either. Curses become blessings and enemies can be friends.

I got the nickname "Karl Baba" while studying the Hindi language in India on a year long post-graduate fellowship from Berkeley. In India, every wandering holy man, mountain cave-dwelling hermit, or deadbeat hobo, is a "baba".

Karl sells fantastic prints of mountain landscapes - you can check them out on his website:

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12 Mar, 2009
Another brilliant piece. Pace yourselves lads! I've had climbing nightmares that are substantially less scary than that.
12 Mar, 2009
Great article. This and the brilliant Godfather one in a few days! keep up the good work.
12 Mar, 2009
This is very high quality writing and a scary story brilliantly told. Well done.
12 Mar, 2009
Great article. Unfortunately too many soloists die sooner or later and one can see why.
13 Mar, 2009
That's nuts.
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