by Ed Diffendal
The Prow, Washington's Column (V, 5.8, C2)
One of the things I like most about climbing is that it constantly changes
the way I perceive what is endurable and comfortable. In the short span
of a few days I can go from five star hotels being a drag to thinking cold
Chef-B is a wonderful delicacy and a portaledge comfortable (well, it actually
is, I think, if you can get away from the fact that you are hanging suspended
from bolts placed in the rock by who-knows-who sometime in the long ago
past). But I exaggerate for effect. My first trip up the Column and my first
solo wall was a great experience, marred only by the momentary intrusion
of our friend and companion, El Niño.
Day 0: Preparation and rope fixing
"The key element in a solo ascent is finding a support team."
A good friend and frequent partner of mine told me that ­p; and after
the Prow I believe him. A couple of my buddies independently and agreed
to help me haul then bailed out when they discovered they could climb with
each other (thanks guys). Fortunately, a couple of folks I had met in Camp
4 through mutual friends came to my aid and helped lug water, gear, and
other sundries to the base of the Column. Heather, Jeff, and George ­p;
many beers are still waiting for you if and when our paths cross again!
Anyway, my stuff suitably hauled to the base of the Prow I started racking
up for the first pitch. As I was going through the mental gymnastics of
getting ready for my first real solo pitch, I met one of the members of
the party in front of me ­p; folks that I was to constantly run into
over the course of the next couple of days ­p; nice enough if a wee bit
pigheaded. Anyway, we chatted and off he went on jugs while I finished getting
myself ready. The first pitch is really two ­p; a 5.10a lieback up to
a slab with fixed bolts, then a short A1 section to the anchors under a
roof. Both sections were relatively easy to aid, and I dispatched them quickly.
The only hang-up was a small epic where the ropes got themselves stuck in
a crack, but, while I thought that it might be a harbinger of nasty things
to come it turned out to be one of only two times the rope would get stuck.
Anyway, I met Zach and Dave(?) again at the top of pitch 1, we joked for
a bit and then I commenced the rap down, clean, haul sequence that would
characterize my next several days. It was only a short wait from the time
I returned to the top of pitch 1 until I was ready to roll again, the LA
brothers out of my way. The bottom of pitch 2 was the crux for me and the
only real section I would characterize as New Wave A2 ­p; 3 placements
worth of flaring pin scars above a sloping ramp. A2 because it was wet.
I sauntered over the slab from the anchors to the base of the crack. Wet
and mossy slab friction, hmmm, that sucks Beavis. The first placement took
an orange Metolius (or so I thought), but it was really wet and way flaring.
I placed it anyway and looked for another, higher placement before I hopped
on. [A short aside: if, for some reason I pulled the placements in the crack
I was bound to fall to the slab, bounce off, and fall 15 feet, over the
lip, and swing onto my anchors. Not terrible in the grand scheme of aid
climbing, but not something I wanted to experiment with.] Anyway, I found
a relatively lousy nut placement that would allow me to reach up higher
to another lousy nut to a good nut to a great green camalot. If I could
get that cam placement I would be home free! Bouncie, bouncie ­p; the
nut shifted and wiggled, but I thought it would hold my weight long enough
to get the nut above. I clipped in and stepped, thinking, "two pieces
between me and the now 20 footer oughta be enough". Step, step, pop,
pop, sliiiiiiide, FUUUUUUCK, silence. The lousy nut was lousy, and popped.
The cam, shock loaded with the plunge from the nut also popped. Fortunately
(luck, blessing, coordination ­p; you take your pick) I landed on my
feet on the ledge and as I slid down the slab, glissading, if you will,
I caught myself on the lip of the ledge and managed to stop my slide. There
I stood, cursing and scared with no pro between me and the anchor. That
REALLY SUCKS, Beavis.
In order to prevent a repeat of the slab dance, I fired a #2 camalot under
the lip at the top of the ledge. I took another fall getting through this
section ­p; this time a daisy chain fall onto a blue alien with only
2 cams in contact with the rock, [author's aside, I LOVE aliens for pin
scars. They're the greatest], but managed to get above the wetness. Whew.
. . once I got to where it was dry the rest of the pitch was cake. Upon
reaching the anchors, I found the LA brothers setting up to sleep. They
promised to let me pass in the morning and I agreed to leave my bag at the
top of pitch 1 and fix a line to the top of pitch 2. Off I went, rapped
down two pitches and settled into my bivy at the base.
Day 1: Makin' tracks.
The alarm went off at 4:30 and I was rarin' to go. I got everything organized
and hopped on my jugs to the top of pitch 2. To my dismay, the LA brothers
were still in their bags and had changed their minds about passing. They
wanted to fire up the 3rd pitch before I passed, if at all. I volunteered
to get the leader on belay while I was waiting ­p; anything to get moving.
Anyway, long story short I waited over four hours at that belay while they
led off. I then let the mad Argentines (Prow-in-a-day) pass, then I was
finally ready to haul and get moving. Pitch 3 was really thin, and probably
the hardest pitch in totale on the route. Tiny nut after tiny nut and I
was at the belay. Rap, jug, clean, haul, wait for the brothers. Pitches
four and five were bolt ladders that were relatively straightforward, but
way reachy. I mean, was the first ascentionist 6'5'' or something? (for
those of you taking notes at home, The Prow is a Royal Robbins route ­p;
I shoulda known). Anyway, these pitches were uneventful except for a blown
head that I hooked around. There was a marginal nut placement that would
have worked too, but I liked the hook better (go figure). The LA brothers
made up for some of the lost time by fixing the sixth pitch for me and off
I went as it got dark, zipping up 6, hauling, and dropping their line. The
top of 6 was a great place to set up my ledge: it had a stance and spread
out, bomber bolts. I was excited to crash out in style and dig into some
Chef-B. The only other notable occurrence on the last pitch was saying hello
to a soloist on Ten Days After ­p; a hard route around the corner from
the Prow. This fine gentleman, the famous (or infamous?) Eric Coomer turned
out to be a big part of my (mostly) solo ascent, but not for a couple of
days anyway. I ate my raviolis and pudding and drifted off to sleep under
a clear sky, spread out and comfy on my A5 double ledge.
Day 2: El Niño interrupts.
I decided to let myself sleep in a bit and set my alarm for 5:00. As I awoke
at that early hour my first thoughts were getting off this bloody rock (early
for summit fever, only 6 pitches up!). I gazed at the sky longingly, hoping
for a nice, warm, sunny day. Instead I got clouds ­p; black clouds that
looked nasty gathering around Half Dome. Hmmm, what to do? I started absent
mindedly racking up and checking out the first few moves of pitch 7. I could
see a blown head and couldn't see any way around it. As I pondered the first
few moves the mist and cold jolted me back to reality. The weather wasn't
bad enough to bail (not raining yet), but not good enough to launch aggressively,
I thought. I hatched a plan: run 7 & 8 together, fix them, leave the
ledge set up. If it started raining I would rap down, if not, I'd clean
the ledge and bag and fire off on 9. In the time it took me to think that
thought, it started to rain. Tentatively at first, then more aggressively
as I raced to deploy the rainfly and get all the needed articles into the
ledge. Let's see, food, water, rack (organize and keep dry). Ooops, forgot
the piss bottle, got it. It started to rain really hard. Fortunately I was
dry as a bone and really warm. I am a huge advocate of safety on walls and
I had brought my zero degree holofil bag, my seam sealed bivy and the fly
for the ledge. Three layers of protection later I was snug as the proverbial
bug. After a bit of time thinking "wow, am I really going to bivy in
the rain?", sorting gear, thinking some more, I got bored. Real bored.
As luck would have it, I didn't have a ghetto blaster or a book or anything
to keep me entertained.
That said, I am a world class sleeper. Not a great climber, not brilliant,
or rich or tall but I can sleep with the best of them. 14 hours. . .pshaw.
. .amateurs. So I drifted off to sleep, safe in the knowledge that my anchors
were bomber, my system solid and my nest warm and dry. I woke periodically
during the day as the storm wore on, but never did it stop for more than
30 minutes. As night drew in I gazed down to the floor of the Valley only
to find that it was covered in fog. I could see neither the top of the climb
nor the Valley floor; I was suspended in a cocoon.
Day 3: Topping out.
As the third day on the wall dawned, I arose to find the weather clearing
and my resolution strengthening. I began cleaning up my belay and prepared
to dash for the top. With all the clanking around I must have awoken my
neighbor, for I soon heard Eric calling to me, asking if I was all right.
We exchanged complaints about the weather and how early it was. Then he
surprised me by suggesting that we hook up for pitches 8-12. Apparently
the route he was on connected with the Prow for those pitches, which he
had done before. I was psyched to have a partner and readily agreed.
In the meantime, I took off soloing the seventh pitch, which was short,
intending to run it together with the eighth. I ended up stopping at the
belay, fixing a rope for Eric, then finished the 8th with him belaying me.
We were a much more efficient team than I would have been alone, and I enjoyed
his company immensely. He is a very articulate guy, for anyone, not to mention
a wall rat, and has some interesting views about body piercing , 3rd world
cultures, and the primacy of OE 800 over other selections of beverages,
especially during office hours.
Anyway, the top pitches went by rather quickly. After pitch 8 Eric led 9
and 11 and I led 10. The tenth pitch, like the eighth, was characterized
by easy aid climbing (made slightly more difficult by the wetness) and a
dose of free climbing at the end of each pitch. They were fun and straight
forward and I enjoyed myself immensely. On and off during the day we were
showered by a pretty bizarre substance ­p; half hail and half snow which
Eric informed me was called gropple, or something like that. I'd never heard
of such a thing (knowledge of obscure meteorological phenomena, one of the
many positive externalities of a PhD in physics, I guess). We figured to
get bonus style points for topping out in the (sort of) snow, and teased
each other good-naturedly.
The last pitch (12) I led at sunset. It was only one or two aid moves, then
fourth class scrambling up a series of ledges. I managed to get the ropes
hopelessly tangled and interwoven and it took us until it was just about
dark to get everything sorted out, the bags hauled, and our bivy set up.
What a great feeling to be on top, after being stuck on my ledge the day
before alternately making plans to bail! I was on cloud nine as I enjoyed
some cold Chef B and splurged by eating two packets of chocolate pudding
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Day 4: Getting off
Sometimes as I reflect on the climb I think the worst part was the bloody
descent. The death slabs weren't as bad as they could have been (and as
I was half expecting), but it was still rather gripping to be traversing
above some potentially bad fall potential slabs carrying all my solo gear.
I had really light hauls while I was soloing, but I paid for it on the descent.
Eric had a code for dangerous section of the descent: "sucky parts",
as in: Uh-oh, I think there's a sucky part coming up. Ha!
I got down to find my car safely parked in the Awahnee lot, with several
notes from my friends. It was great to know that people were thinking of
me while I was adventuring on the wall. I met my friend Jack, he gave me
some well deserved congrats, and we made plans to celebrate. Eric and I
headed off to find us a shower and a beer, though not in that order.
In retrospect it was a wonderful climb. While the weather was bad that one
day, I stayed safe, I met a new friend, and I topped out in style! Sometimes
I wonder over the course of prepping for and doing a wall why the hell I
endure the misery. The feeling as I returned to the Valley floor, totally
amped on life, was why.
"Our process was never merely technical, or one of getting to the
tops of climbs. It was necessary rather to know the soul of climbing and
the particulars moment by moment." ­p; Pat Ament