Archives for September 2003

Climbing Lessons

This is a story about the consequences of waiting until tomorrow, of not wanting to let go, and of the value of holding on.  These three lessons were all etched indelibly into my soul while plastered up against the face of one rock or another, somewhere in the mountains of Virginia, West Virginia, or California.

Back in High School, I had been an avid rock climber,  mostly in Great Falls Park, Virginia.  The park is a truly beautiful place, with 30-60 foot cliffs all along both sides of the Potomac river.  Climbers drop ropes from above, walk to the bottom, and provide safety for each other as they pry their climbing skills on the various rock faces for miles.  Below, in the river, kayakers can be seen playing in the waves just below the Class-VI rapids that give Great Falls its name.  It was at this place where I developed my early skills in climbing, and first experienced the joys of pushing myself hard, striving always for the simple joy of overcoming obstacles on my ascent to the top of an arbitrary point of earth.

Eventually, however, I wanted to climb higher and harder mountains — to climb places where I could not simply drop a rope from the top, but instead had to start from the bottom, place equipment in the rock during the ascent for safety, and climb in segments of 100′ to 150′ at a time.  This was known as ‘Lead Climbing’, and it was through that process that I would gradually arrive on the summit of something far larger then myself.  And so it was, with a buddy of mine, that we traveled to Pendleton County, West Virginia, to climb Seneca Rocks — a 980′ rock face that stands out starkly from the surrounding area and is a local Mecca for climbers.


At the time, my buddy and I were only just beginning our slow process of learning how to ‘lead climb.’  Between the two of us, we had barely enough gear to ascend the simpler routes, but it was a breathtaking journey nonetheless.  Seneca rocks is divided into two main buttresses, with a gun sight-like formation in the middle, known as the Gendarme.  The Gendarme  is a single spire of rock, maybe 60 feet high and barely big enough to stand on top of at its apex.  It is said that you haven’t really reached the top of that climb until you actually stand upright on its razor’s edge.

In any event, we had already been climbing all day just to reach the base of the Gendarme, and were both tired and at our wits end from the adventure.  We had been climbing at our physical and skill limits, and it was starting to get late.  As much as we wanted to continue up the Gendarme, we also knew that safety and prudence dictated that we head down, and plan on ascending that particular rock another day.

Alas, as so often happens in life, one thing lead to another and prior to actually making it back to Seneca rocks, the Gendarme, that massive piece of rock that had been standing for millions of years, finally fell from the face of the mountain.  In that simple event, I learned my first lesson: Never count on the ability to do tomorrow what you wish to do today.  For if even part of a mountain, a massive piece of rock that had stood for eons could suddenly give way and crumble to dust, what assurance is there that the simpler, more ethereal joys and pleasures in life will wait for the day I am ready to partake of their bounty?

*    *    *

The second lesson, coincidentally, also took place on Seneca Rocks.  This time, however, it was many years later with my younger brother, Darron.  On this fateful day, we were climbing a route which sloped slightly backward, and made its way diagonally upwards to the right.  It was called "Ecstasy Junior."  At the time, the climb was very much at my limit of skill to lead-climb successfully.  My progress was slow and arduous, and fear often trembled through my legs, making basic stability considerably more challenging.

Out of that fear, I was placing considerably more "pieces" of equipment into the rock to assure my safety should I fall.  Unfortunately, there were two drawbacks to my approach.  First was that by the time I was nearing the 70′ mark, I had nearly run out of equipment I could use to continue in safety without a longer run-out of rope.  Second was that many of those pieces were poorly placed in fear,  rather than being more strategic.  That meant that there was a great deal of friction in the rope along the face of the rock.  So much so, that it was now physically difficult to pull the rope any further as I tried to ascend.  Lastly, the wind, shape of the rocks, and distance between my brother and I made communication physically difficult, even with shouting, as we were no longer in line of sight.

The final obstacle was that perhaps 20 feet from the top of the climb, I was completely stuck.  I was nearly exhausted from the effort I had expended, I did not have the strength to make the remaining 20 feet, I was out of equipment to make that distance safely even if I did have the strength, and like a treed cat, I found myself unable to climb back down what I had just ascended.  I had come to the conclusion that I would have to "peel off" of the rock by letting go, allowing myself to fall, and then having my brother simply lower me down from the last piece of protection that I had placed in the rock serving as a pulley.

The problem was that I had placed that piece maybe 10′ below me, and I did not know if it would hold.   And since I was unable to climb back down to that piece to reduce the distance, that meant that when I fell, I would drop close to 20′, (double the distance) and still had no assurance that the piece would not pop out.  If it did, there was another piece an additional 5′ below that which was more secure, but that would still be a total drop of 30′, so I found myself in quite a bind.  I could not go up, I could not climb down, and the most sensible thing (HA) was actually to just let go of the rock and fall.  That negative slope at least meant that I would be falling into free-air rather than banging against the rock, but I simply could not bring myself to let go.

So rather than saving what little strength that I had left and simply pushing away from the rock, I instead chose to cling desperately with my hands to a tiny nub of a hand-hold about the size of a golf-ball.   That hand-hold was big enough to grab hold of when I first pulled myself up to it from below, but it was slowly getting smaller and smaller.  My grip was beginning to weaken, and there was a torrential battle in my mind between logic, which said to just let go, and animal reflex, which said "Not on your life!"  Literally, I was staring at my fingers, and I could hear both voices ringing loudly and clearly in my skull: "LET GO!!", followed by "NEVER!!".  That left me in the position of fighting with myself mentally, and then physically as I kept switching my grip — from clinging with one hand, then the other, and then trying to cup that nub with my palm as my fingers rapidly lost some, and then all of the strength that was left within them.  At the final point, after having exhausted my hands, my wrists, my forearms, and my patience, I found myself with one hand cupping the nub with the other cupped on top of the first, only to watch my sweaty hands ever so slowly slide off of that rock.  My eyes were as big as saucers as I stared in near disbelief that my body could betray me in that final hour with an unknown fate awaiting me below.

At that precise moment when my hands finally slipped off of the rock, I took a deep gasp of air as if falling into a pool and turned my gaze immediately downward to that tiny piece of aluminum 10′ below upon which my life would soon depend.  As if in slow motion, I could see it rise from below as I descended through the air in freefall.  I swear that I got one final look at it as I passed below, now accelerating at 32′ per second, per second.  Despite the terror in my heart, that was only the half-way mark on my descent to the end of my rope, at which point my weight would begin to take up all the slack in the system, putting tension on every piece of protection along my route, focusing probably 800 pounds of force on that thing in the rock made from the same material as a soda-can.

Despite what had seemed an eternity in which I fell in near silence, the rope finally drew taught, the system absorbed its load as it was designed to do, and I heard resounding KA-CHINK as everything came to rest under tension.  Then and only then did I let out that gasp of air I had taken from above.  I was hanging in free space and  I ached with every fiber of my body.  I drew my head close to the rope and expelled a mixture of laughter and tears.  

That was my first "Leader Fall", and it was obviously quite memorable.  However, after it was over, I was still suspended on the side of a rock, and I was completely unable to move my hands from the torture I had put them through clinging to that nub now 20′ over my head.  My brother lowered me down, and it was all that I could muster just to remove  and retrieve the other pieces of protection from the rock as I was lowered down.  In the end, we did not make it to the top of that particular climb, and I had left two pieces of equipment in the rock above from which I was lowered.  It was a small cost for the safety of my life, of course, but in that adventure I learned my second climbing lesson: Do not waste time, strength, or energy trying to avoid the inevitable.  Allow myself the grace and trust to let go, so that my resources will be available to me for recovery rather than wasted on a battle I cannot win.

*    *    *

The third lesson the rocks taught me was in California, while trying to reach the base of the climb for Half Dome, in the Yosemite Valley.  It was many years later, and I was again with my brother who had just graduated from college in Colorado.  We had rented a car and made a fateful road-trip out West with our sights on something really big.  He had heard from a friend that there was a short cut via a series of climbers trails from the parking lot in the valley straight to the base of the rocks.  The alternative was to take an 11 mile  hikers trail up the back side, only to swing around the front at mile 9.

The problem was that we didn’t really know where these trails were.  We found what looked like a trail and started taking it upwards, but soon it petered out and we found ourselves nearly bushwhacking up a very steep incline.  We could still see our destination on Half Dome, so we blissfully told ourselves that we were heading in the right direction and pressed onwards.  It was at that point when I thought to ask my brother what kind of First Aid training he had acquired, since our route was rapidly taking us farther and farther off the beaten path.  I had been trained as an Emergency Medical Technician, but should anything happen to me, that training would be useless unless my brother knew what he was doing.  So as we continued, I proceeded to give him a crash course in first aid, focusing especially on what to do should I become unconscious.  We tried not to think about any foreshadowing involved in learning First Aid immediately before attempting a big-wall ascent, but by golly, he was going to learn this stuff!

We were carrying all of our food, water, and gear on our backs.  Wherever we were, it was most definitely NOT a trail, and as we got closer and closer to the base of the climb, things obviously got quite a bit steeper.  Soon, our steep hike turned into a scramble, and from there it turned into some free-climbing without ropes as we continued on.  More than once, we came to an obstacle and asked ourselves whether we needed to pull out our gear and rope-up to get to the next ledge in what should have been a "trail" but was most definitely not.  Each time, we sized it up and decided "Nah… we can climb that!"  So we took it slowly and made our way up without ropes, since to pull out all of the gear would slow us down considerably, even if it was in the interest of safety.

Alas, there came that one fateful time when choosing to forgo the ropes was the wrong decision.  The section of rock was only about 50′ high, and was full of easy hand and foot-holds.  I went first, while Darron waited below.  At the very top of this climb was a moderate sized tree, which I grabbed hold of as I tried to pull myself up over the top.  The problem was that I still had my backpack on, and it had become inextricably caught in one of the branches.  I had tried to wiggle and pull my way loose, but I was stuck.

Despite the considerable drop, I was really quite calm during all of this.  I was hanging onto a tree branch with both arms, my legs were swinging freely below me, I had a 50 pound pack strapped to my back, and I was unable to move one way or the other.  I remember telling Darron quite calmly that I was definitely stuck.  For some reason, I kept thinking of Winnie the Pooh, stuck inside of the door to Rabbit’s house, unable to move one way or the other.  Darron had suggested simply dropping my pack, except that I would have to hang by one arm, and then the other, just to unclip the thing in the first place.  I was not strong enough to hold myself and the remaining 50 pounds by one arm.

Unlike when I was stuck at Seneca Rocks, this was NOT a time when letting go was an option.  There was no safety rope attached this time, and I knew full well that I did not have the luxury of simply "hanging out" while I figured out what do.  Darron had dropped his back-pack below and began the free ascent on his own to see if he could help, but I knew that he would not reach me before some action on my part was required.  Plus, since he was directly below me, if I did fall, there was a risk that I would end up taking him out with me, so I told him to stay clear.

I pushed and pulled to no avail.  My feet could kick at the rock face, but only managed to toss loose stones below onto Darron, and I was unable to catch any grip or purchase with my feet.  My arms were clearly getting tired, I was breathing heavily and sweating profusely.  The thought of simply letting go had crossed my mind, but that option left zero doubt that the outcome would not go well.  Ironically, my thoughts were really not about my own death.  Instead, I found myself thinking about how horrible it would be for my brother to have to deal with such a thing, and worse, the though that I would not die, but simply be terribly injured in a heap of rubble 50′ below.  So clearly, I was not in a good spot, and I was highly motivated to do something, but I had no idea what to do.

And so I began to swing from left to right with my feet.  I remember Darron asking what the hell I was doing, and in a fit of incredibly deep focus and concentration, I simply screamed at him to "SHUT UP!!".  I knew that my voice was quivering in terror.  My younger brother was clearly worried, and all he could see was that I was in serious trouble, and was beginning to swing from the main branch like a chimpanzee.  Now with quite a bit of arc in my swing, my pack still firmly caught in the branches, I began to kick and hoist my feet upwards like a sit-up from below.  I had no idea what I was doing, except that panic was setting in, I was clinging to the branch for dear life, and squirming like a trapped animal fighting for its life, which in a very real sense, I was.  At that precise moment, SNAP!!!

The branch that had tangled my backpack finally broke, freeing me from its clutches.  It still hung from my pack, adding maybe 10 pounds to my weight as I clung by my arms to the main branch, but at last I was able to kick my legs up and over the branch and pull myself to relative safety.  I quickly pushed myself back from the ledge, still gasping desperately for air and water for my parched throat, but I had managed to extricate myself from the danger.  And it was in  that moment that I came to my third climbing lesson: When you are stuck, continue trying new things…  It doesn’t matter what they are, so long as you keep moving.  When the alternatives are stagnation or death, absolutely all directions are more appealing than standing still.   Most importantly, choose life.  Always and forever, choose life.  But when it came time for Darron to make the ascent, you can bet your ass that I put him on the end of a rope!