Adam and I sat in the car in the dirt parking lot at Mono Village resort. It was not hot. That’s part of why we were sitting there, staring at each other, wondering if the cool breezy day, chance for thundershowers and the maxed out trail quota portended our fate in Little Slide Canyon in the days to come. I knew my experience would be completely different this time. Adam had fully prepared me for what had become of my sacred place. But I had to go, I had to see it again, and I also had a burning desire to climb Positive Vibrations.
This route had been off my radar as a “too hard” climb until last fall when I fought my way up Monkey Fingers in Zion. When I saw the photos of Adam and Meelos on Positive Vibes, the route looked like an irresistible slice of heaven and it was on one of my most beloved pieces of rock. A piece of rock I hadn’t touched for over a decade.
The summer my dad passed away a friend took me under his wing and took me to the mountains. He told me to climb and I climbed, hard. I didn’t bother to look at topos or ask ratings. I took just took the rack and the sharp end and let the task at hand file my thoughts down until I had one singular fine tip and no room for grief. In those moments of focus, the crushing grip that sorrow held on my heart would release- just enough to breathe. I had moments of seeing, intensely, the world around me in microscopic detail- like the tiny fruiting bodies of lichen on the rock where I was about to put my fingers. The gaping wound in my heart was slowly filled with those places we climbed that will now always evoke emotional memories- Needles, Third Pillar, oz., and what, to me, will forever be Prayer Tower.
The Incredible Hulk is a misnomer. This granite massif is not green, nor angry. When approaching from the north up Little Slide Canyon the brilliant white granite tower resembles two hands pressed together in prayer. At least that’s what I saw when I arrived there in 2002, carrying a pack that was overweighted with the sadness of loosing my dad.
I don’t believe in heaven or god but when I watched my dad clench and strain and reach for me in the moments before his last breaths I wanted to believe in something.
That something had been building through the summer as my mentor and I climbed in so many amazing places, the Needles with its undeniable mysticism, high Sierra and all its glory. It was then October, the sun was setting on Prayer Tower as we climbed up the last few boulders to the wind scoured bivy spot. We were alone in the canyon. I laid down on the ground, shadowed by Prayer Tower and circled by the surrounding granite cliffs with Outguard Spire standing protectively at the entrance to the canyon.
The overwhelming presence of the Tower was the weight I needed to push me into the earth dissolving my own body into the ground. From my sleeping bag I watched light fade and stars emerge. Cold gripped me and I let it. With my body half numb, my mind entranced by the stars circling the Tower I caved to my vulnerabilities. I was no different, no better than any one thing around me. There was no one thing to believe in, I had to believe it all of it. Because I was part of it. The blood connection to this and all of the places, people and things I’d touched were my home, my constant, and I was part of them as they were part of me. Prayer Tower was like a giant symbol that I wasn’t in this alone. I had the mountains, the rocks, trees, birds, friends, rivers and sky that would always be with me. In me. And I could believe in that.
I climbed the steep boulders into the canyon, arriving again at sunset, spent from the last five days of climbing in the Palisades. My brain frozen from the wind, my back soaking in sweat from the exertion of climbing into the canyon. With Adam off to collect water I set up camp in a nook protected from the wind by house size boulders and gazed up at Prayer Tower. Magnificent. Even with other people in the canyon I could still feel the grace and power of the place. It was grounding. I felt strong, empowered and ready to climb my heart out.
The almost pure white of Prayer Tower is marked by a few distinctive red spots, some of which are named by climbing routes that pass through them. Red Dihedral was my first climb on the Tower. A few weeks ago, Adam climbed Sun Spot Dihedral. The next morning we would climb between the two routes on Positive Vibrations (PV), following a series of cracks up the middle of the rock.
Along with the discovery of any great thing comes the masses, Prayer Tower is no exception. Though the first ascent of Red Dihedral was 1970, the popularity of this back country gem really boomed after Supertopo began publishing highly detailed maps and beta. I think the undercurrent discussion here is worthy. It’s great to have a lot of information when you’re endeavoring into high risk activities. But it cannot replace skill, judgement or experience. Carrying a topo that breaks down a climb into completely revealed components is only one tool in the box. It’s unfortunate that this one tool makes some people feel enabled to get on a route that perhaps, they aren’t truly experienced enough to climb in good fashion (meaning safely, efficiently and respectfully).
Adam and I had the misfortune to start up PV behind a party of two who seemed like candidates to fit the above description. Their painfully slow progress and repeated falls made it obvious that the level of climbing was maxing them out. The worst part came when they denied our request to pass. It’s one thing to take the time you need, especially when you have first dibs, but to hold up parties below who are clearly moving faster without letting them pass is just not cool.
At the top of pitch 4 we waited 45 minutes and the other party had still not cleared the next belay. Our concern about the cool weather was becoming reality as we stood shivering with all our extra clothes on 400 feet up the route. Disappointment was hard to swallow, but our hands and toes where numb and the toughest climbing was still ahead. We had to bail.
Next morning, in honor of Adam’s heritage, we packed the number 4 and 5 cams and headed up to the Polish route. I couldn’t resist the amazing left facing corner sporting a finger to hands size crack in the seam. Half way up the corner changed to right facing and grew from fist to offwidth. Awesome. My favorite. Ha Ha. I wanted this 180 feet of glory and Adam gladly handed over the monster cams and cheered me on.
At the top of the second pitch we were faced with a beautiful rappel anchor and wind chill of about 40 degrees. Bail, again. It’s okay. The first pitch was totally worth it, but I didn’t want to climb in puffy jackets and long underwear in August. Visiting Prayer Tower again felt good and strengthened my connection to the elements of life. I’ll go back, but right then, there was warmer weather somewhere and we were going find it.