Joining Forces

by Ed Diffendal

The Prow, Washington's Column (V, 5.8, C2)
Yosemite, California
May, 1998

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. Soaking 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 for dessert.

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


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