Hole (The Prow)

Copyright 1995 by Ronald Bourret

Washington's Column had a hole in it. Not a very big hole, mind you, but a hole nonetheless. It was about the size of a grapefruit on steroids, and it was causing me problems.

Up to that point, I had been pretty smug about things. I'd spent the morning cruising the fourth pitch, which was supposed to be the crux of the climb. I'd even managed to climb it in the same time that a party below me had climbed the first pitch. And I was soloing. Hah!

While I climbed the firth pitch, the party below retreated -- more reasons to be smug. And now it was early afternoon and I was halfway up the sixth pitch, staring at a grapefruit-sized hole in a blank wall and feeling all the smugness draining out of me.

About a foot above the hole was a copperhead. It didn't look very good, but at least I knew what to do with it. In all the instruction manuals I had ever read, in all the guidebooks I had ever seen, in all the late-night bragging sessions I had ever heard, nobody had ever explained how to climb a grapefruit-sized hole on a blank, near-vertical wall.

For the third or fourth time, I climbed to the top of my aiders, lifted myself delicately on to the perfectly flat, six-inch wide ledge above the bolt, and reached up to feel the hole. Nothing had changed. There were still no cracks, the lip was still too rounded for a hook, and the hole was still filled with little bumpy quartzite crystals. I palmed the crystals and thought about free-climbing to the copperhead; I climbed back down to my aiders.

I wasn't scared. I couldn't think of any way to get past the hole except free climbing and, since that was out of the question, there was nothing to be scared of. I also wasn't smug; the smugness had disappeared on the first trip to the hole. But I was puzzled. How do I get past this thing?

I thought about retreating, but this was my third attempt on the route and I did not want to return for a fourth. My first attempt ended on the third pitch when I found out that my soloing system would hold a fall. It was a short one, but tipping over backwards -- gently, slowly -- had so unnerved me that I lost all interest in continuing.

My second attempt ended after the fifth pitch. My partner had made two or three moves up the sixth pitch and suddenly announced that he wanted to be on solid ground.

No amount of sympathy, suggestions, or offers to lead would change his mind, so down we went. Reversing the firth pitch involved a thirty foot pendulum with a haul bag hanging from my harness. I didn't want to repeat that.

So I stared at the hole. While I stared, I wondered how long I had been there, climbing from bolt to hole and back again like an upside-down yo-yo. Fifteen minutes? Twenty? The first ascent party had gotten past the hole, but how? Surely they hadn't free climbed it?

I climbed back up to the hole. This time, I felt an edge. Not a horizontal edge, like you might hang a hook on, but a vertical one, on the back of a crystal. You could almost see the light bulb explode in my head: the edge would take an outward pull from a hook.

I returned to the bolt, inordinately proud of my idea and considerably more animated. A hook move! Well, no problem then. I'm an old hand at hook moves. I've done, what, two? Maybe three?

With all the seriousness of the inexperienced, I prepared for The Move. Chouinard Skyhook clipped to aider: check. Aider clipped to lanyard: check. Feed out three feet of rope: check. Carabiner for the copperhead in my teeth: check. Time to move up. Yeah, right.

I went anyway. I placed the hook over the crystal and held it against the edge with a gentle downward pull on the aider. Remembering what a friend had told me -- that popping hooks often cause involuntary dental work -- I placed both hands over the hook and averted my face. Commitment time. I eased a foot into the aider and slowly transferred my weight.

The hook held. I caught my breath, afraid that the slightest movement would cause the hook to shift. I clipped my second aider and breathed out. Breath in, step up: I was gaining confidence. I reached up and clipped the copperhead. The weighting process again: tension, then relief, then worry that the piece would pop anyway. Another step up, another set of worries. The next piece was solid.

I don't remember what that piece was; I don't even remember the rest of the pitch; but I do remember feeling considerably less smug. And I've still got a grapefruit-sized hole seared into my memory.