[ prów əss ]
1. superior skill: exceptional ability or skill
2. valor in combat: extraordinary valor and ability in combat
[13th century. < Old French proesce "bravery" < prou "brave," variant of prud (see proud)]
Superior skill: Nope, don’t particularly have much of that. They must be referring to someone else.
Valor in combat: Just who am I up against, anyway? Am I fighting? Who am I fighting? The rock? The climb itself? Some esoteric theological vision? Myself? Where are my weapons? Do I need weapons where I am going?
September 14, 2005 - One week from today we will be starting up the Prow, a classic, sheer wall located on Washington Column in Yosemite Valley, California. Though I’ve been climbing various sundry landscapes throughout my last 13 or 14 years, the Prow represented something entirely new for me. It falls under the category of “Grade V Big Wall.” While “Grade V” means different things to different people, to us it meant taking four days to climb approximately 1800 vertical feet of granite while catching shut-eye in small, strung-up platforms called “portaledges”. The only place to buy such contraptions is at your local insane asylum or outdoor sporting goods store.
So as I contemplated the task at hand, I began to wonder what I’d gotten myself into. Just six months ago I simply wanted to learn more about aid climbing and “big wall” technique. I had considered taking a seminar through the Yosemite Mountaineering School. I had asked around for information and received a few tidbits of feedback but also received a recommendation: Contact a gentleman by the name of Craig Peer. He knows aid climbing. He knows big walls. He’s a nice guy. He likes helping people out. He might help you out. What they didn’t tell me is that he is as nutty as an Almond Joy.
Over the next few months I learned what I could about aid climbing and big wall technique. Sometimes this was with serious climbing friends, and sometimes it was with curious comrades. Either way, I eventually passed through the “rites of big wall passage” and was preparing for a first big wall climb. The journey was not always easy. At one point during my training I started climbing pitch 2 of Dihedral Wall on El Capitan and realized I was in a bit over my head but unaware of the danger I had put myself in. In a shocking 25-foot roped fall I became intimate with the connection between fear and the security of gear placements while aid climbing. This setback shook me up and made me question just how much “prowess” was necessary for this crazy sport.
September 19, 3:20 a.m. – I’m awake again and so excited that I cannot sleep. I wonder if Craig is awake too. After a jaunt of pounding small metal pitons into the rock on Saturday we decided to hike to the base of the Prow in order to become acquainted. When I looked up at the steepness of the route I was reminding of a particular soccer game I played as a teenager when I got whacked in the stomach with a ball. The twisted sea of vertical granite punctured my gut and paralyzed my breathing the way that soccer ball had 20 year prior. It appeared that some sections of the face backed up on top of us, overhanging as if to mock and tease us. “You can’t possibly climb this.” The Prow and I have become acquainted. Soon we will become intimate. I wonder how our relationship will progress. Will it be a pleasant but abbreviated liaison or a long and strung out divorce? In less than 48 hours I will begin to find out.
September 20, Evening – Winding through the roads to Yosemite with a thunderstorm crackling around me leaves me wondering. What would happen if we experienced a storm such as this one, high on the Prow? If the wind is blowing my car off the road, what must it be doing to folks in Portaledges on El Cap? Thousands of lightening bursts flash in the sky with brilliant fury. Is this a premonition of what’s to come? An eerie ground fog wafts up from the hot pavement making it difficult to make out the road in the dark. A call from Craig arrives: “I’m at Chinese Camp!” 60 seconds later I pass through Chinese Camp and sneak up behind Craig’s truck as he’s driving up. Later I admit that the weather has me spooked. Will this crazy deluge make the climbing improbable? What about a weather forecast?
September 21 – Due to the previous night’s unexpected tempest, we start out a bit later than anticipated and carry only a full load of climbing gear to the base of the Prow. We grab a quick bite to eat at the base and I proceed to lead the first part of pitch one (rated C1). The beginning of the pitch follows a straightforward vertical crack with lots of nut and cam placements. I’m making good progress but about half way up the first crack I step out of my etriers and go free. After a couple of “I’m getting scared” gear placements, I go back to aid climbing and follow up the rest of the crack until it’s much less than vertical and then switch to free climbing again. At the bolts on top of the route “Jo Jo” I evaluate the situation. It’s taken me quite a while to lead this first section and now I’m faced with leading the rest of the pitch – including a roof – with considerable rope drag and only free climbing shoes. I call down to Craig and double check the route. I ask if he’s willing to come up to the bolts. Thankfully, he agrees and cleans my pitch in 3 seconds flat. In the interest of time I ask if he’s willing to finish my pitch. Again Craig agrees and scampers over 5.6 in hiking boots to complete the rest of my pitch. We then rap to the ground and hike back to camp. Though the original plan was to shuttle more loads, my slowness in leading and the previous night’s storm has left us with no useable daylight. Instead we make a pact to wake early and get a good start the next day.
September 22 – Sherpa Carolyn lugs three full loads from the Ahwahnee parking lot to the base of the Prow today, then jugs up to the top of pitch 1, and then cleans pitch 2 until 11:00pm. Craig’s brilliant lead into utter blackness was quite impressive. Clearly a small, 19-year break from climbing big walls doesn’t do much to slow this guy down. Craig sets up a hanging bivy under a small roof while I clean pitch 2 and thankfully roll onto my Portaledge upon arrival. I’m so tired I don’t even want to eat – I just want to fall asleep but Craig implores me to eat something for energy. I reluctantly chomp down some Chef Boyardee and gummy bears. With his characteristic grin and laugh, Craig begins to chant “It’s just like fun only different.”
September 23, 7:00 a.m. – It’s cold and I’m full of aches and pains but Captain Craig is up at the crack of dawn, ready to lead up to Anchorage Ledge and the top of pitch 3. Breakfast consists of apple sauce, canned fruit, and pretzels with cheese. Somehow, after we’ve put the Portaledges away and Craig is off, the hanging belay becomes a highway of different colored lines, all crisscrossing each other in a big spaghetti ball. I try to do what I can to sort out the mess while keeping Craig on belay but I’m mixed up. The purple line is attached to the right haul bag, the green line is attached to the purple runner around the left haul bag but the lead line is under the purple line and the pink line is out of reach under the right haul bag but wait is it also under the lead line no it’s on the other side but I can’t see. “SLACK”!!! Ok, better keep Craig on belay or he’ll be mighty sore with me. When Craig reaches Anchorage Ledge and it’s time for me to break down the belay, it takes me 300 years. Somehow Craig has hung some of our water in one of the anchor’s carabiners and there’s no way for me to reach it without aiding up to it. I do so but then find out that the water was not actually ours – someone else had simply left it there. I sheepishly abandon plans to retrieve the water and get around to cleaning the rest of the belay. At one point a piece of the anchor pops out and I swing out wildly from under the roof, leaving me hanging and wondering how I’ll be able to swing myself back to the anchor. At another point I am unable to release the haul bag from the anchor so I ask Craig to send me a knife. Luckily the dull knife slices through the strap like butter, sending the second haul bag swinging out to the fall line. Finally, the hauling is done and I’m busy banging away on offset nuts. The cleaning is strenuous and I feel that I must not be making good use of energy as I struggle and struggle to remove pieces while jumaring up to Anchorage Ledge. When I finally arrive at the ledge, it's after 1:00 p.m. and I realize it’s taken us half a day to climb one pitch. As I climb onto the ledge I look up at Craig, drained and exhausted. I know we can do the route but we’ve only allotted two more days to finish – and we’ve got nine more pitches to climb. I look into Craig’s eyes but don’t say a word. I don’t have to; it’s written in my expression as easily as an ad in the newspaper. Finally Craig says, “We may have bitten off a bit more than we can chew right now.” He’s right of course, but the fault is mine and I’m the reason for our slow progress. I feel reluctant and guilty about being the weak link. Though Craig assures me that he’s ok with the decision, I know how much he’s wanted to climb this route (again) and I can’t help but feel responsible for our decision to retreat. While the disappointment is palpable Craig’s jovial chatter has taken over the ledge and there’s talk of an icy Heineken. I know that I need more practice and Craig recognizes that we can come back after I gain more experience and speed. Craig and I look up wistfully, admiring the line and the pitch above. It was supposed to be my lead. It’s too bad I didn’t take more time off from work.
September 23, evening – The disappointment of the day is mitigated by cold beer, hot soup, a velvety reserve Syrah, and a glimmering moonrise over Half Dome. Our friends Patty and Julia have radioed us from the ground and are now busy flashing headlamps up at us. Their glee and excitement penetrates the night as we bring them up to speed with our plans. They plan to meet us at the base the following day to help us with the loads. Later, when the excitement of ground crew contact has subsided, Craig and I talk only of a future that holds more practice aid climbing, leading, and placing gear. This future will eventually lead us back to this wondrous ledge with an unmatched view of the Valley.
September 24 – After a lazy morning we sadly rappel down to the ground while lowering the haul bags. Thankfully, Patty, Julia and Martin have hiked in and met us at the base of the Prow to help us carry junk back to the cars. Why have these three kind friends offered to help us? No doubt it had something to do with Saturday night dance party plans and drunk climbing on the LeConte boulder. Hors d’oevres were followed by Martin’s quesadillas, Patty and Julia’s pasta and salad, and several terrific bottles of wine. Unfortunately, I imbibed more than I probably should have so, alas, I cannot remember what wines were drunk. What a bunch of crazies! I’m sure I didn’t fit in at all.
In retrospect, I realize that big wall climbing is not, in fact, a battle at all. One does need prowess – not for fighting but for something like a mission. While superior skill may be helpful, it is not a necessity. Time, patience, practice and experience are more valuable than “valor in combat.” I’m grateful to have had the chance to learn and work toward being a better wall partner. The mental and physical challenge will be easier to manage the next time around. There’s no turning one’s back on the Prow.
Nice Carolyn! After spending 20 humbling minutes trying to clean one lousy bolt on LeConte Boulder, I'm starting to get an inkling of the effort (and patience) involved. My hat's off to all you wall rats out there. Maybe someday...........
The experience you gain from the climb is sometimes more valuable than summiting. Sometimes when we feel we failed, it gives us another reason to come back, the challenge remains. Takes a lot of courage to venture on a climb like this and I admire you for that.
Glad you guys got down safely, that's all that really matters.
Dragger, I really like this report, exceptional writing! Sounds like you did the right thing. It's at times like this that we can learn the most about ourselves if we just take the opportunity. It's also at times like this that a partner with Craig's experience, humility, and humor................well you know the rest. Wish I could have been there