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Know Fear?

A trip report by Eric Coomer

Thursday, June 23, 1994

Yeah, I know fear. Here I am sitting in my aiders on pitch 11 of the Prow- my first solo big wall. What the hell am I doing up here? This is all I can think as I watch the rock continue to shatter with each blow from my hammer. The alumina-head continues to deform. I shouldn't have gone this way. This is the second piece of advice I didn't follow today. It's costing me. This damn thing will never hold. All around me are the most absurd beat out looking pin scars. I can't get anything to fit. I just used my last decent alien in one of the 2 inches square, 2 inches deep box holes. Now I'm left with trying to place a head in rotting rock. This is not good. I want to be home; I want to be with Emily.

It's my 4th, and supposed last day on this wall. It's starting to show. I am profoundly lonely. Sweat is pouring from my brow. At least the sun finally shifted around the corner. Though, that hasn't helped the sweat much. I had two choices at the top of the last pitch- continue up the wide chimney section, which I had convinced myself would not be fun. Or to do the belly crawl and a pitch of A2. I liked the thought of A2 compared to wide 5.9 free climbing. I had been warned that the A2 section was rotten. How bad could it be? I was finding out. I could see the end in sight, or at least, I could see easier ground ahead. All that was left was finding an exit to this seam. The head is my only hope. I just pray that it holds. As I ease my weight onto the piece I try to think as light as I can. It seems to be holding but I don't under- stand how; I'm still out of reach of the next bomber piece. Looks like top-stepping! Why the hell am I up here?

Early February, 1994

I had climbed my first "big wall," the Chouinard-Herbert route on sentinel rock, in September of 1993. I learned the whole big wall game out of a book. Not the best way, but a way I seem accustomed to. That's the way I learned to lead climb in the summer of '91. That was the way I was going to learn to solo. The book I bought on big walls had a section on roped soloing; I never bothered to read it. "Insanity!" I thought to myself when I read the title to that chapter. It was the middle of winter, six months after completing my first big wall. I hadn't been climbing since I got off of the Sentinel. My thoughts started to turn towards soloing.

I poured through my "Yosemite Big Walls" guide looking for possible routes. The Prow on Washington's column jumped out from the page at me. It looked perfect. "Steep and exposed but straight-forward," is what the guide book says. At least the hauling would be easy. Then I posted a question about the prow, and soloing, to rec.climbing. The answers I received were all pretty unanymous in saying that the Prow was probably the best solo in the valley. I was psyched. The replies also gave fair warning that soloing was no game to be taken lightly. I started to question whether I was going to really be ready by the summer. But it was all just a romanticized dream at that point.

I didn't own any pitons or a hammer. That was step one- gearing up. I hesitate to sit down and sum up all the cash I laid out for this trip, but, as winter wore on, my reserve strengthened to follow through with this plan. I only needed a small pin selection. I could have borrowed all I needed had I any friends insane enough to already own large amounts of big wall gear. I had none. I plunked down all of my hard earned cash, and vast quantities of my local bank's cash- in the form of a credit card. It is possible to do the Prow without the luxury of a porta ledge. But I hoped to borrow, or rent, one in Camp 4 to insure a peaceful sleep.

My next task was a short warm-up wall with fellow rec.climbers Mike Brodesky and Greg Opland. We decided to do the south face of Washington's Column just to make sure I hadn't conned myself into something dangerous; afterall, I had only climbed one wall. I would lead all the aid, except for the Kor roof, that was Greg's- Kor being his hero and all. The climb came and went without a hitch. I also gained some much needed experience with the North Dome gulley descent.

Then of course it was time to actually solo aid a climb. Strapping on my as- yet untested solo-aid I headed up my first pitch of solo climbing. What a blast. LONG, but I was hooked.

So with two walls and one pitch of bonafide soloing, I felt I was ready. The next thing I knew I was packing for a two week trip from Oakland, California to Yosemite with my big wall dreams. I arrived in the valley on Saturday and staked out a site in legendary camp 4. It was crowded. Seemed as though everyone had a haul bag out and a look of determination on their face. I started to worry that the route might be crowded. I started to question what I was doing. Some weeks before, I saw a total of five parties on the Prow.

On Sunday I said good-bye to my girlfriend Emily. She looked worried. I was starting to get jittery and anxious. I wanted to go. I started gearing up for a Monday assault as soon as she left. I couldn't bare one more day in camp 4. I had to get on the wall. I felt like an addict deprived of his fix.

Monday morning came sooner than I hoped. I was too far gone to get any decent sleep the night before. I hadn't slept well in days. Awake or asleep, my thoughts were consumed by the Prow. If I wasn't ready physically, I would be ready mentally. So at 10:00 am. I shouldered my beheamoth Pig of a haul bag and caught the shuttle bus to the Awhanee hotel and the start of the trail to the column.

What a memorable bus ride. Me with all 100 lbs of Pig- it's official name, trying to keep my balance as I stood in the aisle of the crowded bus. I almost decapitated some unknowing tourist as they sat staring out the window. Times like these really make me wish I owned a car. I left my motorcycle parked in the camp 4 lot gathering dust. I didn't like the idea of trying to balance my loaded bag and riding that thing to the Awahnee. The shuttle option wasn't much better.

I arrived at the trail head around 11:00 and started the hike to the base. It was already scorching hot. With a plan of a four day ascent and a gallon of water per day, I had 32 pounds of water alone. I wanted more, I needed more, but felt I couldn't afford the extra weight. Luckily a good, and naive, friend agreed to help carry some of my weight to the base. Pat would be my photographer, as well as being in charge of keeping an eye on me in case anything went wrong. We walked to the base together. Once or twice he gave me a hand and pushed me and the pig along up the ever steepening trail.

Finally, we were at the base. Sure enough, there was a party of two just starting the third pitch; my back ached. They seemed to be moving incredibly slow. For a while I wondered if I would eventually catch them. As I watched, the leader took a nasty fall. One minute I'm looking at her back as she was making her way up the overhang of pitch three, the next I was staring directly at her face as she hung there upside down even with her belayer. I felt sick. I didn't want to fall like that. I didn't want to be hanging there upside down all alone. I tried to look away. That scene was just the thing I did not need to witness. She righted herself and immediately went back to her climbing. I went about setting up my initial anchor. After an interminable amount of time spent organizing my gear and preparing, I was off.

It was not an auspicious start to the adventure. I was still trying to work out the kinks in my solo belay method. I knew I would be moving slow, but it seemed as though I was barely crawling. I wanted to get as much done this first day to get a good head start. It was already passed 2:00 in the afternoon. But I carried on. Halfway up the first pitch I placed what I knew was a questionable nut. A tiny #2 rp. I did not want to test this placement. So before doing so, I made sure to tighten up the slack in my belay. As soon as I weighted the piece I was airborne. I slammed to a halt only 6 feet below the now blown placement. It appeared the solo belay was going to work. Shaken but at the same time reassured, I hopped back up into my aiders and found a better placement.

"That looked like fun," Pat offered cheerfully from below. "I almost got a photo of that one."

Eventually, I dispensed with this first pitch and was back on the ground and ready to jug what I had just climbed. This was going to be tedious. Every inch of vertical ground I gained would have to rappelled then jumared in order to clean. I would, in effect, be doing this wall twice. I would haul every pitch.

Pat stayed to photograph me on the first pitch. I was glad he was there when I rapelled back to the base. I wanted him to stay, but I also wanted him to leave. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to start on the journey I had intended. I could already feel I was slipping into myself. Nothing existed except for the task at hand. Conversation only distracted me.

After cleaning pitch one, I felt I had enough time to fix the second pitch in preparation for blast off the second day. Pitch two starts with some scary traversing on a low angle slab. Normally, I wouldn't have given a second thought to this. But up there all alone paying out enough slack to start and finish the moves, I was starting to taste fear. After the traverse was a very thin, and mostly fixed crack that lasted 100 feet. It consisted mostly of fixed copperheads, a few fixed pins, and shallow nut placements in pin scars. I was able to do away with a lot of the sketchy nut placements using aliens. Yet another addition to the credit list.

I returned to the ground for dinner and sleep around 8:00 p.m. I wasn't quite averaging three hours per pitch- my goal. But I hadn't hauled a single inch. I started to worry that I would be rushed for time. After a luscious meal of Chef Bad, I laid my head down and drifted off to sleep. Now I was truly alone. I watched the not quite full moon rising over Half Dome. This would be perfect timing. Tomorrow would be the summer solstice and there would be a full moon two nights ahead. Silently I hoped to myself that I wouldn't have to do any climbing at night. The moon was there just in case.

I awoke, checked the watch- 5:30. If I was going to do this thing, I had to get moving. Jugging and hauling my fixed lines to my high point was just what I needed to wake up. Then I was staring at the overhang on which the climber ahead of me had popped off. I started replaying the scene in my head. Again, a slight feeling of fear penetrated my every nerve. The moves turned out to be rather straight forward. The crack widened and was flaring, but accepted a nice solid cam. Up the pitch I went decidedly faster than the previous day. At the top, however, I was forced out of my aiders and had to free climb a bit. I think this is what bothered me most while soloing. It's hard enough to leave the security of your aiders when you have a partner pulling tension for you. It's another thing when you have to pay out your slack before you step off. A blown move early on and you're guaranteed a wild little ride. That's the problem when you solo with a device that requires manual feeding of slack. At the top of this pitch I was well rewarded with a nice ledge and a good rest. The sun was starting to burn. I hauled Pig and fished out the sunscreen. My arms were already black as pitch. I smeared the oily lotion into my skin mixing it with the dirt and grime. I was so tired with still nine full pitches and two and a half days to go to the top. I had even longer until my next shower.

After a brief rest I launched up the crux fourth pitch. Manky quarter inch spinner bolts started the pitch out. Then another tiny seam with mounds of fixed gear. Some of the reaches were large and needed a cheater stick. I was glad I decided to bring one at the last minute. The pitch went slowly; I started to rethink my goal of making the top of six by the end of the day. Down and up again pitch four I went. There was another party slowly catching me from behind. Two guys moving fast and efficiently. I took off on pitch five. Luckily, this pitch was entirely fixed on both good and questionable bolts. Again some reaches were very tough, but soon I was at the top. I decided that I would bivy there for the night.

"Hey, do you mind if we pass you?" I heard from below. The leader from the party behind me was hanging at the belay for pitch 5. I hadn't yet gone down to retrieve my beloved pig, or clean my pitch.

"Sure, if you free my bag and clean my pitch." I guess this wouldn't be a 100% true solo. It was late; I was tired. I felt rushed and behind. I needed the rest. It was a Faustian bargain. I saved myself a trip down and a jug back up. But with the party planning on passing, I was unable to setup my borrowed porta ledge for the night. So I hung in my harness waiting for them to go. I opened and ate yet another glorious can of pasta- yum. But three hours later, I was still hanging. It had turned dark and cold. The blood had ceased flowing to my lower extremities. I was a little panicked and at the last minute, asked if they could trail my lead line and fix the next pitch for me for the morning. I felt my personal ethics sliding away from me. I came to do this solo. Now I would have them fix a pitch for me. When your cold, tired and lonely, ethics don't have a lot of comfort to offer.

Once again it was a split bargain. After spending my first night ever in a porta-ledge in relative comfort, I awoke only mildly refreshed. I struggled late into the night trying to free my sleeping bag and warm clothes without tipping the ledge on its side. I was inexperienced witht this contraption and it showed. It was still early. I savored the unique position I was in as I peered over the side of the ledge to the valley below. What a sight. I looked up to the party ahead. So far there had been no sign of life. I ate and repacked all of my gear. "Is my line fixed?" I shouted.

"Hold on dude." I took that as a no. Pitch six was entirely fixed. In the time it took my two fellow travellers to fix my line and diddle about at the cramped belay, I could have led the pitch. Still, I had to jug the pitch twice. Once to fix the haul line- in my stupor the night before I hadn't thought about having them set it for me, and a second time after coming down to free the bag. And yet, I still caught them at the belay. Once moving, they were fast. I guess they didn't worry about getting such an early start. It was 9:00 am. I had a long way to go.

Before the second took off, we talked a little. He told me that their beta said to do the A2 crack on pitch 11 instead of continuing up the chimney. Mine showed different; he assured me that their beta was better. Their topo also showed that pitches seven and eight could be linked together. I asked them to leave any extra water they had at the top instead of dumping it. I knew I was going to run short. Then he was off. Alone again.

This time I felt more alone than before. In minutes they were out of my sight; I knew they would top out today. I still had another full day an a half before the top. There were no other parties behind me. I would spend the rest of my journey completely alone on the wall. It scared me. Slowly I began to realise the art of soloing. I was rapidly retreating into myself. I started that path that all soloists must go on. I was alone. I realised this completely. I revelled in the feeling. The deeper I fell into myself, the more I learned about me. At the same time, I was completely empty of thought except for what I had to do. Place the piece, step up, clip in, repeat- rap, haul, jug. It was endless. The repitition only helped my semi-meditative state.

Pitch seven was uneventful until it merged with pitch 8. A tension traverse off a manky alumina-head. It looked like it had been there forever, complete with tattered paper-like sling. Moreover, the fixed, most likely original, rurp that the pendulum ended with, looked even worse. I wanted this pitch to be over with. After the traverse, the pitch half moons until you are directly over the fixed head again. I didn't want to waste valuable time following this so I decided not to clip any of the pro along the semi-circle. In retrospect, maybe it wasn't the wisest idea. By the end I was facing drastic fall potential. I didn't like the looks of the less than vertical landing below. I needed to save time. I felt so relieved once I was back over the head and able to place, and leave, a solid cam. Towards the top, I again had to leave the safety of my aiders and begin free climbing. This bit was a circitious route around small ledges. Back and forth with no pro until finally I was on top of Tapir terrace. I slumped. There were two bottles of water there. I downed one in a single gulp. I was dehydrated. I sat there for a few minutes before heading down to retrieve the bag. I no longer cursed those ahead of me. They had provided what I needed most.

I was happy that I didn't clip any pro after the traverse. It made my cleaning job a breeze. Again I was on top of Tapir. I sat for an hour just resting. This was my hardest day. I felt so beaten and tired- withdrawn. I knew I had to fix the next pitch if I was going to get off the top the next day. So off I went. This pitch went easy- A1. I was happy to have a reprieve from the mental strain of a harder pitch. I returned to my ledge for the evening. I would leave the hauling til the next, and final day. Not the most spacious ledge but I would do without setting up my porta ledge. I ate a third can of pasta and decided to go to bed early. I was asleep before the sun had set. The last thing I remember was the sun reflecting brilliantly off of Half Dome across from me. A gorgeous sight. I wanted to look at it forever but sleep rapidly overcame my wasted body.

Morning again came quickly. This time it was later, almost 6:30 am. I felt much better than I had the previous day. I knew that it would end today. At least- I hoped it would. I forced myself to eat. I always have trouble eating in the morning on a wall. It hasn't gotten any better. Eventually, I extracted myself from my bag and had my stuff repacked. Once again, I started my lonely jug up the fixed line. Then the endless haul. The scene was endless repitition. It was the same that day as it was the day before.

Pitch 10 held my first piece of ignored advice. The pitch starts up a corner and ends up in a chimney of sorts. This in itself was enough fun. But I was warned to keep a half-way piece clipped on the haul line. This would force me to haul only half way, rap down to unclip, jug back up and haul the remaining half pitch. I didn't like the sounds of that. I was given fair warning that otherwise, the bag would get hopelessly stuck in the "mad haul bag eating flake" to the right of the pitch. I clipped the haul line as I went up only to unclip it on the way back down. I assured myself that the bag wouldn't get away from me and that I could keep it out of the flake. WRONG! As soon as I unhooked the bag at the belay, it took off. Around the corner it flew. I knew it was stuck. There was nothing I could do. I cleaned the pitch and started to haul. Six inches later, the bag would move no more- hopeless. I rapped the full pitch to pull the bag out of the flake. I just hoped it wouldn't continue to stick the whole way. I clipped a piece to keep it sort of out of the way just in case. Back to the belay. The endless haul. It got stuck again. This time it was right below the piece I put in. I manuevered the bag into a better position and hoped I could haul the rest of the way without incident. The bag finally arrived at the belay. By this time, I was just a pool of sweat. I looked up to the next pitch.

This was the second dilemma. Continue in the chimney which had more 5.9 wide stuff that would be rather hard to protect, or do the A2 which was only rumored to be rotting. In order to get to the beginning of the A2 seam, another half pitch across "the belly crawl" had to be added. It didn't appear too nasty. Halfway across the belly crawl I was already regretting my decision. This thing is sloper, scary, loose, not to mention a tight fit- no pro, a bad landing. Yes, that feeling of Fear was back with a vengence. Haul and jug. Haul and jug. Do you know the way to the top? I was at the start of the A2 crack. It didn't look too bad. A little wide at the start but there were a couple of fixed bongs- bomber. Up I went.

That was over 40 feet ago. I'm still trying to keep my balance in the hero loops of my aiders. I can just reach a decent nut placement and I am so relieved to finally unweight that scary head placement. I thought this pitch was short. It isn't. Though easier, I have been climbing all day. I thought this day was going to be short. Further I climb. Looks like the belay ahead. But isn't this pitch 11? Isn't this the end? What is this huge overhanging headwall doing at the end of my route? I know I ask this in vain. I loose it. I'm huddled on the steep slab at the belay wailing. I'm out of control but it only lasts a few minutes. I can't deal with this any more. Soloing is so much harder than I thought it would be. Sure, I could have benefitted by being in better shape, having more water, sleeping longer. But her I am. The top has to be up there somewhere. I don't want to move. It's late. I hope Pat keeps his word and meets me at the top. I don't want to be alone anymore.

Down I go to free the bag. Up I go to haul the bag- endless. Now what. I'm sure not going to attack this headwall straight on. Why do "they" always just put those arrows at the end of topos to show "easy off." This certainly doesn't look easy to me. Maybe something around the corner. Fixed heads- it beats the headwall. I wander endlessly around crumbly ledges and rotting rocks towards what looks like the top. I want this to end. I'm done with sadness and depression. Now I'm angry. I'm yelling obscenities at the unflinching- unhurt rock. It just stands there. Pieces of it pulling off in my hands, but I know I haven't hurt it.

Finally, trees- two lone trees. I hope that's the top. I pull over the remaining few free moves on more rotting rock to glorious sunlight. The sun is lowering in the sky. I'm blinded. I don't think it has hit me yet that I am on top. Right on top of the column. But I still have to rap and jug and haul. I do this, rather slowly. I'm on top again. I don't feel the same motivation. I know it's too late to start walking down. I'll have to wait another day to hear my love's voice. I wish I hadn't forgotten to call her before I left. Pat's nowhere to be found. But the Fear is starting to leave. I'm too ecstatic. I tear the stench soaked clothes from my body. I dance naked in the remaining sunlight alone. I start to prepare my bed for my final night when Pat arrives. My journey has ended. I am no longer alone.

"I thought you were dead. I got up here this morning around 8:00 since you were so far up the route yesterday. Then you weren't here. I ran back down north dome gulley and there was a smashed haul bag at the base. I freaked. I didn't know what I was going to tell Emily"

I guess Pat knew a little about fear too. "Please tell me you brought extra water..."

The rat had been fed

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