‘Climbing this weekend?’ Said Paulies usual midweek email. ‘Aye what you keen’ for I said ‘By the way’ I added we should discuss a good time to go do U-Wall’. ‘Hmmm’ came Paulie’s reply ‘I’m busy Sunday, which means Saturday is our last chance!’. I was game and we began busily making a plan come together.
With just a single day window we knew we’d have to ignore the advice of our friend who’d done the route before who suggested it would be a good idea to fix a couple of ropes the day before so we could get a couple of pitches up quickly first thing and then go for the push in a day. We would just have to see what we could get done on the Saturday with no time for fixing.
To add to the slowness factor we’d also decided to take the haul bag, we knew it would slow us down a lot but that it would be great for practice, with awkward hanging belays and some lower-outs to manoeuvre. After all, U-wall was for practice, sure we could probably finish the thing in a day without hauling, but that wasn’t the point!
To save time I did however suggest that we go up Friday night and bivi under the route. It isn’t a big walk in but it is steep and long enough that carrying the haul bag in in the morning could easily swallow an hour, not to mention if we lost track of the deceptive trail among the boulders or had to spend time taking the tents down from the likes of the Chief campsite.
So we hit the road to Squamish around 6.30pm after work and after stopping to fill our 2 litre soda bottles full of water, for extra weight in the haul bag, we hit up ‘Mags 99’ for some tasty Mexican food. Everyone had been recommending the new restaurant to me (it sits in the old KFC building just on your left on highway 99 as you reach Squamish) but I hadn’t had the chance to check it out. Whilst the special pork tacos (that were recommended to us by the waitress) were super tasty, the amount of food wasn’t quite to the portion we were hoping that would keep us fueled through the next day, so be warned if you can pack a lot of food away!
(Mags 99 for dinner)
After our Mexican it was getting dark and we decided we should make our way up through the boulders. Paulie opted to carry in the haul bag while I said I would lump it out. Finding a flat spot to bivi near the base of the route was more tricky than first anticipated but we managed to find a spot just big enough, literally under the awesome looking line of ‘Sunblessed’.
(Our bivi just under ‘Sun-blessed)
The bivi was comfortable but in my -7 down sleeping bag and uber rated Exped mattress it was way too sweltering in the Squamish heat to get the good nights sleep I wanted, not to mention the adrenaline in anticipation of the next days adventure keeping me awake.
Tired but excited we dismantled the bivi and packed the haul bag at 5am. We set off up the scramble on top the flake. It’s worth noting that this looks like an improbable approach but it definitely goes despite looking sketchy as hell. Thankfully it looked way less sketchy in the light of dawn than it did the night before by head-torch. Still, it was kinda exciting getting the haul bag over to the thankfully fairly big ledge that exists below the 1st pitch. I took the first lead on what can only be described as an incredibly intimidating steep corner. It was also a little damp, and did I mention it was steep-holy steep.
(Setting up the belay after traversing in on the fixed line)
Thankfully I soon seemed to get into my aid climbing stride, which is incredibly slow by the way, but feels somewhat methodical and bizarrely relaxing once you get into the zone of hanging on small gear that is probably sub-par to the standards I would want to place when anticipating a fall free climbing. The pitch required a huge amount of patience and focus and although it seemed to take forever I just tried to keep concentrating on the task in hand and not think about how long it was taking, how much expansive steep rock was above me or how scary the situation could look if I stopped concentrating on the methodical minutia and looked outside of that. Set peice, clip etriers, move up, repeat.
I reached the belay after well over two hours and despite feeling like I was constantly back cleaning I was almost totally out of gear. It felt epic, but there was no room in my brain to contemplate that. I needed to fix Paulie’s line and set about hauling. I was reasonably pleased with how quickly I set up the haul and I thought I had laid the belay out nicely so everything was cluster-fuck free. It was, but hauling from an almost free hanging belay was very difficult and I found it hard to body haul since there was no real ledge to place my feet on to thrust down in a squat position. Despite this, the bag came up without any further glitches and soon Paulie was also at the belay to start the prep for the next pitch. It was time for me to go again.
Next came the shadow pitch. U-wall as a free climb actually heads out to the dihedral left of the shadow toward an ominous looking wooden bivi ledge. Hanging below the infamous shadow pitch I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to climb that line, even if it was on aid. Again this pitch provided a great staging scene for steep and strenuous aid and gave me another insight into how much room for improvement there was for efficiently standing in my aiders on overhanging terrain trying to reach as high as possible to place small cam after small cam. One upside of this was it gave me plenty long enough to hang around being in awe of this stunning pitch and anyone who had the ability to free climb it, they must be super human!!
(Me just about to enter the thin dihedral of the shadow)
Things got a little exciting at the end of this pitch when I realised to traverse over to the belay would require a blind hook move that was so far to the left of my last piece it required me almost doing the splits to step between my aiders. I was pleased to stick this though and once again reach the bolted belay. Paul even got the chance to practice a real life lower out to second the move too!
After another pitch it was finally the end of my block and time for Paul to take over on the lead. Whilst I had kinda felt pretty bad for Paul and thankful for his patience on the epic belays, I was pleased to have some down time and to switch my brain off a little and refuel whilst on the belay. Paulie’s leads were similarly epic with a gnarly start to a 10d that Paul seemed defeated on when he had to pull out the ladders and start aiding. Some more hook moves and a tenuous cam that popped on him were all part of the journey to the belay. As I jummared up to meet him I was greeted with a tired and frustrated Paulie.
As I jummared the 6th pitch I was beginning to feel more comfortable at efficiently tackling the cleaning of traversing terrain. About 5m below the belay as I placed my right jumar above the piece at my chest, set it and stepped on to it I heard a crack and felt myself falling through the air. Thankful to come to a quick stop I immediately looked down at my last back up knot to make sure it wasn’t too far away and slowly began to realise what had just happened. My top jumar had popped off the rope. In my complacency I’d been reluctant to clip a ‘biner through the top of it, for speed, which would have stopped this from happening. After a few curses I pulled myself together and moved on, lesson learnt!
As we reached the end of pitch 6 it was getting kind of late. We’d been on the route for more than 12 hours (yes pitch 6!) and were both feeling the tiredness and getting frustrated at the lengthiness of the ordeal. Although we kind of knew that going for the push in one day was supposed to be a big day, I think we both secretly hoped it wouldn’t take that long. I suppose this was a major lesson in the reality of aid climbing (especially as newbies!).
Since pitch 7 looked to be a traversey, overgrown nightmare we both decided that, whilst we had factored in the high potential for being on the wall in darkness, it probably wasn’t worth being benighted for those last 2 pitches. Thankfully we both agreed that going down from here was a good call. I was pretty happy with this decision as in all honesty the abseiling-off part of the day was something I was dreading and I was happy to not to have to face that in the dark. Abseiling unknown territory in the darkness is something I’ve only done a bit of, and while I know it happens a lot and isn’t necessarily a big deal, it still adds an uncertainty to your day and a chance for some fuck ups when you’re most tired and are vulnerable to mistakes. For that reason I’m never 100% comfortable if it is looming at the end of the day and in this case even more so as we had to get the pig off too – something I’d not done before. At around 7pm I started leading the abs back down the route and Paulie kindly agreed to bring the pig down with him. The abs were long and steep and it was the first time in a very long time that I actually got the butterflies a little descending in free air hoping to catch up with the rock again at some point.
(The view back down, you can just see the red fixed line at the base of the route in the bottom right hand corner) We made it back down to the first ledge atop the flake in about four abs I think and I really really wished I had a camera for the last one where I looked up to see Paulie seemingly riding the ‘pig’ out in space as he descended from the hanging belay at the base of the Shadow. So cooool!! By the time we had hustled the haul bag off the flake and down to the trail by our bivi it was pretty much dark and unable to find a head-torch between us (we didn’t really think that through when packing the night before and stuffing them in the bottom of the haul bag) we headed out through the boulders, weary and unable to see. Since Paulie had valiantly carried the heavy pig into the route it was my turn to step up and get the thing out. Agile downward maneuvering is not my forte at the best of times especially with what feels like an unwieldy barrel on your back and pitch darkness, so the walkout was testing and time consuming. Thankfully we made it back to the car in one piece where we set about re-racking and organizing gear and drinking chocolate milk in an attempt to replenish our tired bodies that had survived on a couple of cliff bars and some sweets for the last 15 hours. The crux of the day was keeping Paulie awake on the drive home whilst fighting my own bodies deep desire to drift off into a coma-like sleep. The next crux over the following week was to convince Paulie of the positives of the experience. I’m not sure how he feels about it now, but being pretty frustrated at how long it took us and the fact that we didn’t actually finish the route (despite having reasonably justified reasons to bail!) it was easy to see how we could become pretty defeatist about our efforts. It’s also hard because I feel like I found it much easier to take away some positives from the route. I felt like it had been a great step in our Yosemite training. Despite having practiced steep aid leading, steep aid seconding, belay transitions and hauling a few times previously, this was the first time we had put things all together at the same time in a multipitch route and I wasn’t expecting for us to be good, or quick at it. Plus, I had talked to my friend, Squamish’s resisdent climbing encyclopedia, the guy I mentioned earlier who had given me the idea to try University Wall as preparation in the first place, and he seemed to have the ‘that’s just how long this stuff takes’ attitude and pleasingly didn’t seemed to be too surprised at the epic time we spent on the wall. I guess only time will tell how well our skills are getting polished and if were drastically lagging behind in our readiness to take on Yosemite’s big walls, but one thing I’m certain of was that it was a really worthwhile outing and actually a whole lot of fun (for the most part!).