Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Long Story of The Prow

As we promised, what follows is an after-action report from our Memorial Day weekend trip to New Hampshire. In an earlier post, I shared one of our goals for the trip. We also had another goal, which was to onsight the VMC Direct Direct in a quick push. In short, I guess you could say we failed to accomplish either goal. We did not onsight the Prow and we didn’t even get on the VMC DD. However, I was proud of our efforts, and we did succeed in several unspoken goals: get back safe, learn something, and have fun.

We arrived in Manchester late Thursday night and picked up our rental car. We settled for your run-of-the-mill midsize sedan, but I really think we should have shelled out the cash for a little extra American muscle—something boss, like a Camaro or a Charger. You see, we had no intention of showing up at the base of Cathedral Ledge as boring old Dan and Alex from Washington, DC. An historic and badass line like The Prow would require historic and badass new identities. This particular weekend, we’d be climbing as Burt Reynolds and Tom Selleck.

oh yeah
American badasses.

 Upon arrival in North Conway, with the vagaries of travel and facial grooming behind us, our biggest worry was the weather. It had rained for most of the week leading up to the holiday, and the forecast was showing a non-trivial chance of rain each day over the weekend. We knew our goals would necessitate consecutive hours of solid weather on at least two days. Nevertheless, we went to sleep that night with our heads full of cautious optimism--there's no way the fates would conspire to wash us out after we had planned this trip for months, spent a good deal of money to get there, and took the time to sculpt perfect 'staches!

... We woke the next morning to rain. And it wasn't a fierce burst from a fast-moving summer thunderhead. It was as if an enduring, soul-sucking veil had descended upon North Conway; the whole valley seemed to be a single, baleful cloud, unyielding in its ability to soak every inch of exposed rock. Every so often there would be a reprieve from actual rain, but that didn't seem to matter. Tendrils of mist were floating through the air like spectral fingers, moistening anything they touched. We knew we had lost The Prow, at least for that day.

I believe both of us were thinking that, even if the weather improved on the morrow, we might be out of luck. Both the Prow and the VMC DD had reputations for seeping for days after a rain shower. And although neither of these routes are "cutting edge" by today's standards, they are hard enough that freeing them when wet is not a possibility, even for Thomas Magnum and the Bandit. Neither of us said much about that. Instead, we made the short drive to Cathedral to locate the first pitch of the Prow. After a few false starts, we found it. It seemed strange to stand directly under a route that had been on our minds for so long and still feel so far away from climbing it.

To console ourselves, we ran laps on a couple tricky crack lines in an alcove that had somehow stayed partially dry.  It felt good to tune into the granite, but the climbing seemed much more difficult than it should have. I told myself it was because of the wetness and hoped it wasn't a sign of things to come. Lately I've felt physically stronger on rock than I ever have before. But for some reason, the physical struggles have been replaced by mental ones. Climbing has been much more "in my head" than in the past. It isn't a fear of physical harm that's been psyching me out, but some pernicious brand of performance anxiety.  Huddling in that alcove, I could feel the doubt creeping in. If I couldn't climb a couple of wet 5.10s and feel confident, how was I going to manage a six-pitch 11+?

As it turns out, I would get the chance to find out sooner than expected. After getting a tip about "the best food in the valley," we decided to call it a day and hit up The White Mountain Cider Company, just outside of Jackson. The advice proved genuine, it was decided, after walking in and seeing the beer and wine list. A place that boasted Green Flash IPA and Geary's HSA on tap, we knew, could not possibly disappoint in the food department. It did not. So good was the food and atmosphere that we didn't eat anywhere else the rest of the trip. While we enjoyed our meals--a rare NY strip and tender, sliced lamb in a sweet pineapple BBQ sauce paired with a robust Cabernet--we hatched a plan to drive to Cannon Cliff the next day and tackle the VMC DD.

The next morning we woke up early, a little sore from the laps in the alcove (or was it the wine?), but not much worse for the wear. On the drive to Cannon, we marveled at the blue-bird weather, but still worried about the condition of the route. predicted the best forecast of the trip for that day, and we were rolling the dice by using it on Cannon. Cannon is bigger and badder than any other wall in New Hampshire, and it has alpine cred when it comes to weather. You never quite know what you're going to get. But, we reasoned that the only chance we'd have of doing both the Prow and the VMC was to use the best forecast on the VMC and take a chance with shakier weather on the Prow. It took us about 45 minutes to pick our way through the steep talus guarding the wall, and the whole way it seemed as if we were making the right choice. Even though the center of the wall still looked a little wet from a distance, the sun was shining and the wind was blowing. Surely it would be dry within an hour or two, we reasoned.
The Dan-imal in his natural habitat. In the background, the big wall section of Cannon Cliff is still wet.
We reached the base of the wall well right of the start of our chosen route. However, we were close to the start of a couple moderate classics, Moby Grape and Vertigo, as the crowds attested. Moby Grape appeared dry enough to climb. There were already several parties on the route and several more waiting to start Reppy's Crack. Just looking at that beautiful splitter crack made me want to drop my backpack and solo up to the first belay ledge.
Reppy's Crack -- the gorgeous first pitch of Moby Grape.  (picture from Mountain Project)
Instead, we exchanged banter with the waiting parties. They seemed impressed when we told them our objective. "Whoa, VMC? Hard core, man. Good luck!" That, or something like it, seemed to be the common sentiment from everyone we passed. At first it made me feel like a badass, going to grapple with a route that everyone seemed surprised to hear even being mentioned. But then, when we arrived below the route itself, we realized why everyone seemed so surprised. We were going to need crampons and scuba gear to get up this thing. It was a damn waterfall.

... are you for scuba?
Tell me true ...
We parked it below the route and swatted black flies for about 30 minutes before we decided the route was not going to dry out, at least not during the next fortnight. So, we sucked it up and made the humiliating traverse back to the top of the trail, skulking past the knowing locals, trying not to look too surprised.

Locals: "VMC was too wet, eh?"
Us: "Pshht. Of course! You thought it would be dry the day after a rain storm?!? n00bs!"

The wet route really harshed my stoke. It was starting to look like we wouldn't be able to get on either of our objectives for the weekend. I was sorely tempted to get in line behind the masses waiting for Moby Grape, but Dan wasn't hearing it. It was only 10:30, and he wanted to sprint down the talus field back to the car, then bust ass back to Cathedral to check out the Prow. "By the time we get back to the Prow, it'll be noon. That's plenty of time for the route to dry out, and it still leaves eight hours to climb the route!"

At first I thought it sounded absurd. Were we really going to drive over an hour to get to Cannon, hike 45 minutes up all that damnable talus, then not climb anything at the cliff? There are world-class moderates here, Dan. We may as well concede the hard routes and at least get some climbing in on this trip. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized he had a point. We didn't train for two months to wait in line for a 5.8, no matter how good it might look. We came to climb two routes. One of those routes was wet and impossible to free climb. The other route still stood a chance of being dry and climbable, and it was waiting for us back at Cathedral. 

We wasted no time getting back to the car. It took us roughly 15 minutes to rock-hop down the talus field and throw our gear back into the rental. Once in the car, the miles went by in a blur, and soon enough we were pulling up to the trail head we had scouted in the rain just yesterday. We racked up at the car, going as light as possible. That meant chugging water and only bringing a half liter on route. Considering all the booze we had consumed the night before, this should have raised a red flag. But the idea was to stick to the "rope, rack, shirt on our back" style we had agreed to. After all, our goal was to onsight all six pitches. If we managed to pull that off, it wouldn't be long before we were back at the car, drinking our fill. In hindsight, there were a couple of things wrong with that plan, but more on that later.

We practically sprinted the short approach to the base of the route. God bless Cathedral. Five minute approaches to full-length, full-value routes on clean granite! Upon arrival, we immediately noticed that the rock looked dry, for the most part. Here and there you could see the sheen of light reflecting off a wet spot, usually at the end of a crack system or under a roof. But from our vantage point at the base of the route, it seemed as though you could negotiate any stubborn holdover seepage without too much problem. Most of the slabs we could see from below looked completely dry. We figured the second pitch crux would be OK. What worried us was the fourth pitch, which we had heard takes a long time to dry out. Nevertheless, we didn't skip a beat, going straight into our customary rock flip to determine who'd get which pitches. As per usual, karma was on my side. Or was it? 

Winning the toss meant that I would get the crux fifth pitch. This excited me, but I was also a little nervous. I knew that if we managed to free every other pitch up to that point, the pressure would be on. What's more, the crux pitch is a thin crack in a hanging dihedral, which is capped by a triangular roof. I'm pretty good at pulling roofs, but first I'd have to get there. Corners have never been my strong suit. In fact, they're Dan's. Maybe it made more sense for me to tackle the punctuated, bouldery cruxes on pitches 2 and 4 and let Dan work his magic on the hanging corner? Right then I knew that this route was in my head, as I had never before considered relinquishing the crux pitch voluntarily. I pushed the thought out of my head and racked up for the lead on the first 5.9 pitch.

 It went by without issue and seemed pretty easy. Soon enough, Dan was at the belay and we started mentally sequencing the moves on the second pitch crux, which was right off the belay. After a re-rack and a little poking around, Dan committed to a difficult sequence and gained a jug just right of what appeared to be the crux transition to a finger crack. He clipped an old pin and pulled into the crack system, bumping his right hand higher in the crack and high stepping with his left foot. He popped soon after. 

We had agreed at the base of the route that if either of us fell on lead, we'd pull the rope and start again from the bottom of the pitch in an effort to redpoint. Honestly, I expected this to happen at least once. I don't think either of us were too disappointed. In fact, there may have been a bit of relief, at least on my part. 

After taking some time to inspect the moves, Dan yelled down for me to lower him back to the belay where he rested for a few minutes before heading back up again. This time he pulled into the crack, bumped his hands up, high stepped, and pulled over the bulge, out of sight. And that's where he stayed, with only incremental rope movement, for about the next half an hour. I could only imagine what was taking him so long, until it was my turn. After a fall, I pulled through the crux, over the bulge, and onto the slab above. Dan was only about 20 feet above me, but I had no idea how he got there. There were no holds to be seen, only a line of three or four bolts leading up what appeared to be blank stone. Ah, the joys of friction slab climbing. With a little beta from Dan, I was able to palm, high step, and scoot my way up the slab to join him at the belay. In the end, the moves didn't feel hard, per se; but I also never felt entirely in balance or secure. I hate slab climbing.

Dan following the third pitch.
The third pitch was a fun, airy traverse over the prow and back up the far side, rejoining the crack system about 60 feet above the belay. I traversed out and around the prow proper, and made my way up some jugs to a blank spot just below the crest of the prow where I needed to rejoin the original crack system. I clipped a pin and peeked over the crest to see the crack seeping water about four feet above me. There was a high gaston for my right hand that I clearly had to use, in conjunction with a high left foot, in order to gain the crack. But each time I grabbed the hold and tried to commit to the step, my mind told me that my foot would not stay on the wet slab, and I would back off, climbing down to the good holds to rethink it. After doing this kabuki dance two or three times, I finally decided to lock off and slap for the crack instead of committing to a wet foothold. I stuck the move and jammed my way up to the fourth belay. Dan followed, making the awkward crux move look easy, and suddenly there we were, below the fourth pitch, with a clear view of the two crux pitches. The hanging corner on pitch five loomed above us, with the crack system obscured by the arête. Suddenly I was psyched to attack it. But first thing's first. The infamously bouldery crux on pitch four. 

 Right away we could see that the crux consisted of getting to the finger crack about 15 feet above the belay. The moves to gain the crack were obviously sequency, nearly vertical slab moves utilizing tiny crystals for holds. This combination would be tough in perfect conditions. But it just so happened that the crack was seeping water and the slab below it was soaking wet. Up until this point, we had harbored such high hopes of free climbing the entire route. But the fourth pitch turned out to be a lot like Obama's fourth year in office. Hope had vanished, and we were left only with a deflated desire not to fuck things up more than they already were.

The wet slab below the finger crack. If you look closely you can see the green slime leaking out of the bottom of the crack, making the crux hold unusable. Above and left of Dan, the pitch 5 corner guards the exit.
Dan gave it a valiant effort on lead. He poked around for a long time, trying every combination of crimp, undercling, side pull, and gaston in his arsenal, taking several falls in the process. But it was no use. There was no way around using one key hold--the only hold that was good enough to reach the crack--and it had a steady trickle of water running over it. We even tried damming the crack above with a wad of rolling papers, but there was too much seepage. The tiny pod wouldn't dry out, and our free ascent of the Prow was over. 

Dan pulled on a sling and got his hand into the crack above, skipping the wet hold. From there, the pitch was doable, although still a bit wet, and he finger locked his way to the Space Station Belay. I gave the wet crux a couple tries on top rope and saw first hand how difficult the moves would be, even when dry. There was no choice but to pull on gear to get by. I'm pretty sure the climbing above the wetness was stellar, but I found I couldn't enjoy it in my disappointment.

We re-racked at the Space Station and I prepared to set out up the money pitch. It starts with a delicate leftward traverse to gain the crack and flake system that extends up into the corner and another 150 feet or so up to the top of the cliff. The traverse was airy and technical, but not terrible. I wasted some energy putting a nut in directly after gaining the crack, when I should have punched it another five feet up to a good pin. After that, I didn't place another piece until under the roof. There were pins every 10 feet or so, and I lacked the endurance to to stop and slot anything else, as tempted as I was. The moves below the corner were stout and involved technical smearing. The air was just humid enough that my feet constantly felt like they were "oozing" off of the rock. I struggled with this the entire pitch, always feeling like I could fall at any moment. I gained the corner and made probably the hardest single move on the pitch to get my feet up into a stemming position on laughable crystals. In the corner, there were few good holds and few good spots to rest the calves. It was mostly palming and smearing in a stemming position, which, given my lack of corner acuity, seemed very strenuous. 

About halfway up the corner, I felt completely exhausted. I was pumped, my calves were aching, and I felt nauseated from the effort. When I glanced down and saw that I had only gone about 30 feet up from the belay, I nearly let go in protest. The only thing that kept me on was the thought of having to do it again if I fell. I dug deep, and somehow groveled myself upwards into a less strenuous, but unbalanced, position at the top of the corner and plugged a cam into the first of two pods under the roof. I slung it long and considered my options. There was another pod closer to the lip of the roof that would easily take gear. However, I figured that I was going to be relying on it for a hand hold and I didn't want to limit my options. I knew that pulling the roof would be a challenge in my depleted state, but I had to go for it, even if the voices in my head were telling me that I was facing a long fall if I failed. 

A climber reaches over the lip of the roof,
probing for the bomber finger lock.
(photo from
At this point, I was completely out of Dan's view, being obscured by the right-hand wall of the corner. But he later told me that at some point during the pitch, he saw my left foot fly out into space and then kick back in to the corner, leaving him baffled as to what just occurred. I was baffled myself by how I managed not to fall when that happened. After deciding to forgo another piece of gear, I pinched the arete with my right hand and used the vacant pod for a high undercling with my left hand. I stretched my right foot out to smear on the arête and pushed up, committing to the undercling. That position proved untenable, and my left leg cut loose, causing me to barn door. My torso twisted into the corner and my left leg swung out behind me in an exaggerated, out-of-control flagging motion. I grunted against the effort and somehow managed to keep from falling, but not from panicking. In my haste to get under control and not blow it at the last hard move, I completely neglected to reset my left foot, unconsciously smearing it on the wall instead. I slapped up over the lip of the roof and was able to palm a sloping arete. I was shaking at this point, on the verge of falling, but I could also see a good finger lock just a foot over my right hand. In my head, it was simple. All I needed to do was to utilize the sloping hold long enough to cross my left hand over from the undercling up into the bomber finger lock. And that's what I did. ... Well, that's what I do every time I replay the pitch in my mind, anyway.

In reality, I fell. All told, it was only about a 20 footer with rope stretch. You see, as I mentioned above, with every ounce of focus channeled into that bomber finger lock, I forgot about my damn feet. All I needed to do was reset my left foot closer to the arête to keep me from barn dooring when I reached for that hold. One quick foot shuffle and all of that work in the corner (and all of the histrionics of the last three paragraphs) would have been worth something. But, that's not what happened. That's a bummer, man.

Disappointed, I had Dan lower me back to the belay. I was too exhausted to ascend the rope and work out the moves again, which ended up being a bad idea. I rested for about 10 minutes at the belay, then pulled the rope and went up again. This time, things felt easier. The delicate traverse seemed trivial. I was much more efficient in the corner. And I felt like I had a bit of energy left when I got to the roof. Everything seemed to be going right. Someone once said, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Well, pulling that damn roof fooled me twice. Once again, I thought I could stick the finger lock without resetting my feet, and once again I fell. Shame on me.

After falling twice at the last hard move, I had no energy left for another redpoint burn. I relinquished the sharp end to Dan. Dan took one fall in the corner, lowered back to the belay, then promptly sent it second go. Thank god somebody did.

I fell about five times seconding the pitch. I was wasted and dehydrated. We had drank the last of our water some time ago, and the previous night's activities had caught up to me. My mouth was cracked and I had cramps, but I took the lead again on the final 5.9 pitch. I barely made it up. In fact, I damn near popped off about 15 feet above my last piece of gear as I was topping out. My feet slipped and I grabbed the tree, making for a dramatic near-miss. "I must be so tired I'm hallucinating," I told myself, as I could have sworn I heard several gasps and then a round of applause. But as I struggled to my feet at the top of the ledge, I looked around and saw about 15 people watching me. They didn't know that I had just missed getting the crux pitch clean. I don't think they would have cared. They all seemed very impressed. A couple little girls asked me non-stop questions for the next 15 minutes as I brought Dan up the pitch, and some people even took my picture. I was completely out of gas and a little disappointed in my effort, but I had to smile all the same. What a great route!
Tom and Burt, with the Prow in the background.

1 comment:

  1. Too bad about the shitty weather. Nice mustaches. You boys are getting done.