Rollercoastering New Hampshire
By Brian Connors
The Prow at Cathedral Ledge (5.7 C1+ or 5.11d) has been a longstanding goal
of mine. I had been dinking around on aid for years, and the Prow seemed to
be the perfect next step. Neither terribly hard nor long - a good first
"real" aid climb.
And the years passed. The Prow was consistently put off until the next
season and time just sort of slipped by. For a variety of reasons, most of
which were probably imagined, I determined that this year had to be it. Of
late, Mike, gear junkie that he is (a near prerequisite for aid climbing),
had expressed at least a passing interest in doing some aid and had been up
on TR a few times and done some jugging work. When I first floated the idea
of the Prow as an early fall goal he didn't exactly balk at the idea. Good
enough for me - I'll take that as a yes.
Two reschedules later (one to outside influences and the other to
bronchitis), we were on for the first week in October.
It was our intention on day one to just get on some easy climbs and get back
into the swing of things. Perhaps to set up a fixed line for some jugging
practice and play around with some of the more technical aspects (e.g.,
following a traverse) of aiding. Easy [for us] and one pitch is in short
supply at Cathedral but the North End seemed to offer that which we sought.
Remarkably, we even managed to find the climbs easily and geared up for the
[in retrospect] unfortunately named Child's Play (5.6).
I say in retrospect because the name wasn't particularly good for the ego
when the start of the climb, while not terribly difficult, still managed to
give me fits to the point that I ended up taking an easier traversing line
in from the left to get started. To be painfully honest, this was a real
low point. If I couldn't even start a 5.6 climb, what business did I have
on the Prow? With the [presumable] goal of making me feel better, Mike
brought up the fact that this was my first lead in yet another season that
wasn't. He succeeded in simultaneously making me feel marginally better and
[unintentionally] a whole lot worse.
I finally collected myself and continued up. I felt increasingly better as
the climb passed under me and although not back in form just yet, felt far
better about things by the time I hit the anchors.
I sat at the anchors for a good long while. Mike was planning on jugging
the line after me and although I heard lots of grunting and a whole lot of
swearing from below, I saw no evidence of Mike coming up the line.
He maintains he was wrestling a wild boar.
I had previously promised him that I would not hurl my usual volley of
questions at him when his progress didn't match the progress I anticipated -
an annoying habit of mine. I sat quietly, looked at the scenery, and
waited. Eventually I heard a call from below that perhaps I should rap down
and take a look at what he was up to? I dutifully rapped.
What Mike was up to. Jugging and having a tough time of it. In fairness,
he hasn't had a lot of practice at it and once we got things dialed in, he
made good progress up.
In the face of a slew of oncoming parties and the fact that we had tapped
out the number of climbs that we could do, we departed the North End (i.e.,
tucked tail) with the idea that we would at least locate (not always our
strongest suit) the start to the Prow and perhaps climb the first pitch. We
made our way over to the Prow area and after a bit of walking here and there
finally managed to marry photos, topos, and descriptions into a location.
The first pitch didn't look too bad and I felt [only a bit] better about
climbing it the next day.
Apathy and a lack of confidence were in the air though. We sort of bailed
on the day and went over to Echo Lake to have a "talk." Mike confessed that
he was very nervous about the climb and felt that we were in over our heads.
I confessed that I too was scared, but ultimately confident in our ability
to get up the thing. I reasoned that if people less experienced than us had
scraped their way up, we could do it too.
Self-doubt had already insidiously wormed its way within me though. I knew
we wouldn't finish - and said so. But the trying was important. Just to
try. Bottom line was that I couldn't live with myself if we didn't at least
make an attempt. I could go home in defeat but to just default before the
starting line would be wholly unacceptable. I had to just get up there and
have a peek.
Mike eventually, and perhaps reluctantly, agreed and we adjourned our little
summit, made our way back to Nereledge to sort the mountain of gear for the
morrow, got some dinner, and tried to make an early night of it.
After dinner I read downstairs for a bit and then made my way upstairs
"I'm just warning you, I've thrown up three times already."
Mike was apparently suffering from either food poisoning or a small dwarf
living in his stomach (Fig. 1). I certainly felt bad for him but
there wasn't much I could do. I couldn't exactly hold his hair back while
he repeatedly sounded as if he were trying to expel a lung. I tried to
sleep but mostly started trying to deal with the fact that this just wasn't
going to happen.
To my surprise, the alarm went off at the appointed hour and Mike seemed
ready to go. But I knew that he was just making the attempt for me and I
just couldn't live with that. I suggested we just take it easy and see what
happened. By late morning Mike was feeling better to the point that he was
up for something easy on Whitehorse.
Beginner's Easy variation goes at a knee-shaking 5.3 but given Mike's
questionable state, seemed to be a good choice. Or so it seemed. The vague
arrow on the topo combined with the guidebook's "work up the right side of
Whitehorse belaying from trees when necessary" should have been a clue as to
the route's character.
I grooved my way up the first pitch and was feeling good climbing and
basking in the sun. Pitch two ordinarily would have been a cruise as well
(and it largely was) except that the rain from two days ago was still
working its way down the right side of Whitehorse. There was one delicate
section where the crux revolved around keeping my feet relatively dry while
trying to friction my way up.
There's not too much more to say about the route. It was truly enjoyable at
some points, some areas were only made interesting due to the seepage and
route finding...and other sections were god-awful scrumble-fests where the
only positive thing that came of them was that we were at least going
The second to last pitch was grand fun and full value with a rope-length of
easy friction and nearly no pro at all save an ancient and rusty 1/4-incher
about 50' out from the belay.
Despite a largely less than aesthetic route it had been a good day out. I
had my lead head back on, confidence was back up, and Mike had kept
Tuesday arrived with our "plan" intact. We would head up just to see how it
was, climb as much as we could, and generally make the best of it.
With more gear than we could possibly use. Ever.
The true first pitch of the Prow is a 5.10b slab that we couldn't seem to
find. But we didn't look that hard. The first pitch of Recompense is only
5.7 and is oft-used alternate start. I headed up knowing that at some point
I need to break right to get back on the Prow.
The pitch was steeper than it appeared from below but I made steady, if
slow, progress. Unfortunately, the self-doubt was already cranking hard. I
was feeling all right but constantly bubbling below the surface was the
worry that I was going to climb myself into a corner.
I kept pushing on up hoping clarity would arrive. Two bolts finally
appeared overhead which initially buoyed my spirits until I worked up a bit
further and saw them on an overhanging wall and seemingly impossible to
reach. A bit further up and I finally saw the anchor out right. After a
short hand traverse and mantle, I was at the belay.
But a toll had already been exacted. The previous doubt over route-finding
had morphed into doubt over everything. I radioed down to Mike. He said he
wasn't feeling too well and I was secretly pleased. I wanted an excuse to
go down. After a long discussion I eventually volunteered to fix and rap
our haul line, jug back up and clean, and then rap off again. We were done.
I rapped back down and just sort of plunked down. I felt horrible and a
failure. And a larger truth.
I am a huge pussy.
One last thing to do. I got on my jugs and started back up. And then,
quite frankly and certainly unexpectedly, started having an absolutely
marvelous time. I screamed back up the line cleaning and smiling the whole
way. I felt good again. One mini-pendulum and I was back at the anchor.
And then not so good. I had to go back down. Jugging the pitch had brought
my confidence back up, the pitch above now looked to be the cruiser that it
was, and I had to rap. With this realization, I bottomed out again. I
radioed down to Mike that if he wasn't in any kind of hurry, I was just
going to hang out at the station for a while. He wasn't and I did.
I spent quite some time up there. Looking out on the valley and over at the
Thin Air face. Contemplating the way the trip had gone.
The only bright spot was when I came up with what I felt was the ingenious
idea of leaving a pair of BD jivewires clipped to the anchor as if that had
been our mode of retreat. Unfortunately, I only had one and felt the joke
would be incomplete without the pair.
I finally arranged the rap and started my way down looking back up the
In fairness, there were a few things that conspired against us, not the
least of which were Mike's gastrointestinal issues. And it would certainly
be easy to leave it right there. It's a real good excuse. But I know I was
at least initially happy that he wasn't going to come up. And that really
stings. Because I know that for all my talk about trying and such, I really
I want to thank Mike for suffering through a variety of things: my
obsessive pursuit (happy to return the favor) and "white whale" approach to
the Prow; and certainly for keeping it together in the face of what I'm sure
was just a horrible couple of days. Most would have lain in bed or on cool
bathroom tile but Mike pulled it together and went climbing. Largely for me
I think. And I really do appreciate it.
Putting failure into context is difficult. It was stupid for me to have
done so, but I had built this trip up in my mind to near epic proportions.
Looking back, I was using it as some sort of emotional/confidence insurance
plan. There are and were aspects of my life that I wasn't thrilled with,
and while this climb wasn't going to fix anything, it was going to (or
supposed to at any rate) carry me through. That at least I could look back,
smile, and be happy. But climbing isn't about that and I know better. Or
should. Adding onto this was the knowledge that I wouldn't even get to try
again until spring. And that's not easy either. Because the view up pitch
two is the lasting image burned into my mind.
We'll be back.
Trip Sponsors: Manson the dog, The Ben Stiller Show writ large, P.J O'Pootertoots, The Lobster Pot I[.]V[.], "Pumping Iron" - Lou Ferrigno's coach in particular, all-weather watches, "Oh my Gott," the multi-faceted Dave, Jennifer, pretentious folk with nothing whatsoever to say, "hardcore climbers" who've curiously managed to wholly forget classic testpieces they've completed, ROMMBCBV (Royal Order of Moat Mountain Brewing Company Botulism Victims) - two time member, certain adjectives for sauce in Chinese food that might accidentally be less than PC upon closer inspection, the floodgates opening as a direct result of the previous, Motorola Talkabouts for [semi-private] emotional breakdowns, gaining perspective.