First Ascent: Warren Harding, with Glen Denny, Allen MacDonald, and minor efforts by Les Wilson, Chris Westphal, George Whitmore, October of 1961
Notes on the route:
The Leaning Tower is a magnificent piece of overhanging rock that greets Valley visitors as they exit the Wawona Tunnel. This route, the West Face, sparked the huge stink of campfire critics on just how may bolts are justified to summit a route. Harding maintained that he is/was free to choose his own manner of climbing, and everyone else can go to hell. His ascent of the West Face was big news, and had coverage in numerous magazines and on T.V. Royal Robbins, arch critic of Harding, made the second ascent, solo, some eighteen month later. Was this a statement--maybe--a bold undertaking, definitely.
The approach can be easy or difficult, depending on your prowess at finding the start of the trail. The standard method is to head left away from the restrooms at the parking area and start looking for some cairns. This is the start of the trail and will lead you up and along the actual base of the Tower. Any of the gulleys to the right of the Tower are fairly grievous, involving huge talus hopping and pain.
The 4th Class ramp leading to the dead tree is pretty bomber until near the end. Some parties will choose to rope up for about two rope lengths to get to the actual start of the first pitch. Pitch one is your eye opener. Bolts to the sky, with immediate exposure. Pitches #2 and #3 can be combined and the belay is at a small stance. All bolts are suspect and some may be missing. Most parties will carry a cheater stick or as Harding once called it a "Denny-Arm", commenting on the height of his partner and the spacing of his placements. Pitch #4 is usually fixed but does feature some broken gear near the top of the arch that makes for some reachy aid. Belay on Guano Ledge and then move over to Ahwahnee Ledge after hauling. At certain times there is a fixed line draped across this section. The usual idea is to fix pitches #5 and #6 from Ahwahnee and then rap back in for the night. Pitch #5 is awkward and traversing. Pitch #6 has a face start that can be hooked and then a crappy bolt ladder that is sometimes missing bolts. Use your "Denny-Arm" or rumour has it you can pendulum over left to some loose flakes and dicey thin aid to get to the station, some nice 3/8" bolts. Pitch #7 is a long one taking very small gear at the top. The belay for pitch #7 is a stance a bit higher than the old belay. Pitches #8 and #9 can be combined into a 150 ft. pitch, but watch out for rope drag and don't rip into the Evil Tree. Some parties will be forced to bivy on the sloping ledge at the top of pitch #9. It's not bad, but not great either. Pitch #10 is usually fixed and hauling onto the slabby belay is a bitch. It is also possible to bivy here if needed. Topout is done via a 5.0 move and then a short traverse onto the summit ridge.
The Descent: Getting back to the car has proved to be as difficult as the route for some parties. There are tales of people getting washed to the very brink of Bridalveil Falls, or rapping off the end of the rope in total darkness in the Gunsight. Both methods are to be avoided. The easiest way is to exit the summit to your right and head over and down via 4th Class slabs and if need two or three rappels to the Leaning Tower Chimney. For those with a compass, this would be to the south. At the Chimney/Gulley, there are rap stations that include single bolts, slung blocks and trees. There is a long rap at the end of the Chimney that spits people off the cord daily. To avoid this horror, at the final rap over the slab, move right while on rappel to a groove toward some slings on a tree in the chimney. Sounds tough, be be sure to look around for the slings. From here it is an easy rap to the ground. Follow the talus back to your car and crack a beer.
Info provided by: Russ Walling, Doug McDonald, Doug Munoz and others.