The Prow on Washington Column (Grade V, C2F, 5.6) – Bill Sherman, Jordan Ramey, Mike Esparza (written by Sherman)


Jordan and I had made a half-ass attempt on this route earlier this year in February. The weather forecast was calling for 9 days of storms so we didn’t really think we would be doing much of this route - so much so that we packed our skis for a possible detour to Tahoe for the weekend. As we predicted, we bailed after pitch 1 with snow/sleet coming down and that second pitch full of slime. The skiing was good and the Koreans got rescued off of Half Dome.

After regrouping, we laid plans to return and this time had Mike to come along as well. Mike has been up Southern Man and Ten Days After and was also looking to add The Prow to his collection. We figured he would be a good complement to the rest of us even though we had never climbed with him. Interestingly enough, I met Mike after buying a set of hybrid Aliens from him on eBay.

Mike is currently enjoying the lay-offs and severance pays so has plenty of free time that he can devote to climbing, surfing, and playing with his kids. Because of this, Mike decided to take off to The Valley on Thursday with plans to pack in the gear to the base and fix a pitch or two before we arrived on Friday. Being that Jordan and I work full-time, we weren’t able to leave until Friday afternoon from LA. Traffic in LA is bad enough but combine that with a long weekend and we finally pulled into the Ahwahnee Hotel parking lot at 2300. Half of the place is roped off due to the recent rockfall.

During our drive in, we received a phone call from Mike making sure I brought my rack as well. He had forgetten some key pieces that he needed on the first pitch and so hadn’t been able to climb it. Nonetheless, he did haul in most of the rack, water, a ledge, etc. We combined the gear from my rack that we needed and headed off to the base of the route after a pre-wall beer.

We made quick progress to the base and debated what to do. After a few minutes, we racked up and headed up the first pitch at 0330 on Saturday morning.

Surprisingly, there was not a single person on the entire Column when we left ground. Throughout the day, though, there were multiple parties heading up South Face and one soloist following us up.

Pitch 1 took a little bit of time to finish it in the dark but once we had everything hauled up it started looking a little better. It had been months since any of us had aided anything so we began a little rusty.

The second pitch corner had its usual seep and slime at the beginning which is a little unnerving considering the nice ledge you hit if you blow your pieces. That fixed pin was just a little out of Jordan’s reach which pissed him off when I walked right over and could unclip it on the clean. There was nothing too special or difficult on this pitch with the fixed heads in place and a double rack of hybrid Aliens and HB brass offsets.

Pitch 3 was mine and again went without much difficulty.

Anchorage Ledge was a nice surprise given the description as a poor bivy site. I was plenty comfortable laying down on this ledge along with the haul bags. I even got a nap while waiting for the pitch to go. With the sun out in full force, we set up the ledge for both comfort but also for shade. It was quite a relief for me since I can barely tolerate temperatures above the 40’s. This led to the running joke of the trip since we brought over 30 liters of water for the 3 of us and I drank about 20 of them in 2 ½ days. After a good lunch of Ramen and salmon, we were set for some more climbing.

Mike was up for pitch 4 and had some difficulty near the top where multiple dead heads required hook moves to pass. Once past the difficulties, the rest of the pitch went well. For Mike, this was the crux pitch of the route.

Meanwhile, I was watching Ted Baker, a geohydrologist that works for the Park Service, solo up the wall below us. He was making good time and eventually stayed at Anchorage Ledge while we continued onwards.

Jordan took pitch 5 and made quick work of the bolt ladder in the dark and by headlamp. The whole time he was going through it he kept complaining that he was almost too short at 5’9” to climb the route. We all wondered how Robbins could have put those things in there as he is no giant either. “Reachy” is a “fair” description of the bolts. This pitch is probably the steepest of the route with the wall being completely vertical.

At the top of pitch 5, we set up the ledges and debated on fixing the next pitch. We had all been going for over 36 hours without any real sleep at this point and decided to wait until the morning. We were pretty much fried and could have all slept on the one ledge. Eventually we motivated ourselves enough to set up the second ledge and get some sleep.

With the sun coming up, we crawled out of our bags at 0700. I was pretty excited to get going on the next pitch which I had heard was possibly the crux of the route. For me, pitch 6 was the best pitch on the climb. I took off and was enjoying every move. I cam hooked up the first seam and ended up welding a #4 HB in a pod after I bounced it and it shifted into place. This was the only piece of gear we left on the route and climbed everything else clean. The upper section of the pitch had all fixed heads and bolts and did not require the hook move as in the topo. I went ahead and used a Clifhanger, bypassed a very good head, and clipped the last bolt before the belay. There is a small ledge at the top of 6 that was comfortable for standing but there is a slab below that so I’m glad we set up our ledges on 5 instead. The angle started to kick back here now with the headwall behind us.

Pitches 7 and 8 are both short at 70’ and 80’ respectively. Mike climbed through the “Strange Dihedral” without any difficulties and with fixed pins and heads in place. He decided to link the pitches above at this point without really knowing what he was getting into. Despite trying to leave long slings to counter the rope drag that is known on these pitches, he got to the free section and couldn’t even pull in a foot of slack. Pitch 8 makes almost a reverse “c” shape which, combined with the angles on Pitch 7, makes for a hell of a time on the sharp end of the rope. He had to fix the line for Jordan to clean 7 and belay at the bottom of 8. With the rope drag taken care of, the rest of the pitch went very quickly.

This brought us up to Tapir Terrace. The ledges at this site are poor and would have made for a rough night without a ledge. I felt sorry for Ted who ended up staying there. The haul to there is really easy as the bags swing out over the headwall with 700’ of air below them. The jug is fun as well as not only is it free-hanging but it also allows one to examine Ten Days After.

Being that we were on a ledge again, we decided to break for dinner. This included a pre-made Indian dish in a foil packet from Trader Joe’s. If any of you know what I’m talking about then you’ll know how good these things are especially after 12 hours of climbing. It went incredibly well on the dinner rolls that we brought up.

I’m not sure if we were doing something wrong or reading the topo incorrectly but Jordan was going through an awful lot of blue-blacks and micro-nuts on Pitch 9 instead of the 0.5”-2.5” as described. The hauling from here on out begins to get difficult. With 3 people, it made it much more bearable as the third could get the bag around the flakes and roofs. The angle definitely decreases at this point and allows for more high-stepping and quicker climbing.

Night had fallen and the headlamps came out again. We were determined to get through the remaining pitches and sleep on the summit. Mike had promised us an excellent bivy site on top. Pitch 10 goes free at 5.10 and I was debating putting on the climbing shoes. If I did the pitch again I would do it free or at least the French way. It ate up 0.5 and 0.75 Camalots as well as #3’s. I intermixed free climbing in my boots with some aid moves. After about 80’ I reached a small alcove where I could have easily set up an anchor with gear. From this spot, we could have hauled from Tapir if we had planned it that way. The route continued up a 5.0 gully. Near the end of the gully there is a big ledge to the left with bolt anchors. If I wasn’t carrying a ledge, this is where I would sleep rather than Tapir. It was flat and plenty comfortable.

The hauling on this pitch was horrendous as there were plenty of haul-bag eating flakes, slabby terrain, and the gully to negotiate. Again, thankfully we had a third to get the bags unstuck. Once all 3 of us were on the ledge, I broke out the stove again and we had more soup, beer, and other snacks.

With only 2 pitches left, Jordan and I decided to split them up among ourselves so that we all got 4 pitches each. Jordan took off up the 5.9 offwidth on pitch 11. The belly crawl to our left looked horribly nasty and unpleasant. There were fixed slings in that dirty whole where it looked like people came back down and reconsidered. The off-width was no picnic either as the crack in the back is a long reach away and requires long (48”) slings to prevent the cams from walking.

While cleaning, I had to spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning a 0.75 Camalot that walked into the back of a crack and had completely opened up. With careful and surgical precision, I got the cam into a more flared section and retrieved my gear. It was a new C4 and I wasn’t about to leave it. The remainder of the cams under the overhang were also walked in the crack but I was able to get all of them out without too much difficulty. Unfortunately, while I was doing this, my partners were helpless to get the bags up as they were jammed into overhanging cracks and corners. With just a slight budge they came up and we were back in business.

One pitch to go and boy were we feeling it. I grabbed a handful of pieces and headed out for Pitch 12. I free climbed past a bolt on a slab and around a corner to the right. Two moves of aid and I was free climbing again to a large sandy, rotten shelf with a couple of trees. I figured I was home free on the 4th class ground but was confused trying to figure out the hauling. I fixed the ropes to a tree and called for my partners to come over and check it out with me. Once they arrived, Mike was able to point out the large tree 50’ above me. Being that it was still dark, I had no clue exactly where to go at this point. In the daylight it would have been very obvious.

We scrambled up about 20’ and noticed a very large crack to the left, almost directly above our belay. We made a directional anchor with our #4 and #4.5 Camalots and hauled the bags to this point from the large tree with half a dozen slings around it, 20’ below the summit. Once the bags were on the slabs even with the tree, we fixed one of the lines and hauled the bags individually to the tree. From the tree we ferried the loads the remaining 20’ to the summit.

The summit has a large flat area that would have made for an incredible bivy. Being that the sun was already up we were thinking descent now despite our 24 continuous hours of climbing. We ate more food on the summit than the rest of the climb. Beers and rum went around to celebrate a great climb. A few hours of rest, relaxation, and repacking before we were off down North Dome Gully.

The descent took about 3 hours to get back to the car. More beer followed and then Curry Village Pizza along with King Cobras.

All in all it was a great climb. The first 6 pitches are incredible coming up a nearly vertical wall. Although we didn’t need to hammer any gear, I would highly recommend to bring a few of the larger heads in case too many are dead. Double Aliens through red and double hybrids along with HB offsets are key to this climb. A Leeper Cam Hook also comes in very handy in many of the pitches. A Clifhanger, Talon, and Pecker should be thrown in for good measure in case some of the fixed pro is missing or unusable.

The End