The Saturday of October 25, 2014, my nephew Robert Parker planned a rock climbing trip to Hanging Rock State Park, and he invited yours truly. He brought along his 4 ½ year old daughter Kara, who was a delight to be with. I had been around Kara many times at family gatherings. But she was so small that we had little interaction. On this trip she showed some of her personality and character. She was strong and brave climbing the big rock face. She apparently is musical, too, because she often sang while she played. And, like Michael Jordan, she sticks out her tongue when she is concentrating.
Also along were Ann and Larry Parker (my sister and brother-in-law, and Robert’s parents). All the Parkers except for Kara had been here before. They had also climbed many dozens of other places. This trip was just my third climb; and Kara’s first.
Along the way, as Larry piloted our carpool vehicle, we drove through the back country of Yadkin, Forsyth and Stokes Counties. What beautiful country! It reminded me of sections of southwest Virginia. When we got to Hanging Rock, we parked and signed in the State Park registration kiosk. We backpacked our gear from the parking lot, up the mountain to the cliff face, and began setting up the climbing apparatus.
Robert and Larry made a fairly difficult climb, without protection, up the back side of the hill. At the top of the cliff they set the anchors and slings to tie our climbing rope for what is known as top roping. This is the safest way to climb. We did not have to set cams, nuts or other lead climbing devices to catch our falls. Lead climbing devices are sketchy; they can sometimes slip out of their placement in a crack and fail. With top roping, the belayer on the ground has the climber held snugly and safely the entire climb.
Being the best climber, and agile as a squirrel, Robert scampered up the rock face first and easily made it the 50 feet to the top. I went next and got about halfway up before getting stuck with no obvious way to climb further, so I was then lowered back to the ground. Kara climbed next. She did great! She followed Larry’s and Robert’s expert coaching to keep placing her hands and feet higher and higher. After a couple instances of hugging the rock, she following their instruction to straighten her legs, push out from the rock face, sit in the harness, lean on the rope, look around and climb a little more.
I tried again and, with Larry belaying and coaching me, I made it about 25 feet higher than before, to within 5 feet of the top. I got to another spot where I could not find a higher hand or foot hold. I decided, hey, I have done pretty well! This is the highest I have ever climbed in my life, it is good enough, so I asked to be lowered again. Then Ann climbed, followed by Larry climbing. Darned if both of them did not make it completely to the top! I started to regret my turning back a little too soon. Watching Ann and Larry, it was obvious that I lacked perspective. When they got to the last 5 feet, instead of looking for a hand hold or foot hold straight up, like I did, they both moved about 5 fee to the right, onto a little ledge, and then on to the top.
I figured out that I made three mistakes. First, I arrived at the mountain feeling too passive. Most of my early outdoor career was marked with aggression and determination to do things the hard way. We went on trips regardless of the wind, rain or snow. Long mileage and large altitude gain were expected. We always made it to the top of the mountain, or through the biggest river rapid. Worse, I would drag my partners along with me the hard way. Back in my college and law school days, I was known as a hard case and outdoor task master. I would tell my girlfriends that no whining is allowed! Over the years, many of my older friends have stopped going with me, because they don’t want to backpack, paddle or ski so hard. Then, some years ago, I went on a trip with Cassie Stone and her children, to bike on the Virginia Creeper trail in the snow. On that trip, Cassie was the task master. I had a revelation and became the nurturer. Unfortunately, if I am not the trip leader, I sometimes have taken the nurturer approach to the opposite extreme and been too passive. This climbing trip with Robert was such a passive affair for me. I was not engaged with any agenda. I had no goal to reach the top of the cliff. I let Robert and Larry do all the thinking.
What I learned on this trip, and plan to apply to all my future trips, is to balance passiveness with aggression. I will be engaged and focused, but willing to listen to others. I will set some reasonably difficult goals to shoot for. If I had a proper goal to reach the top of this cliff, I would have searched harder for an alternate route, and not given up so easily.
My second mistake was not to trust the rope and the belayer. When I ran out of handholds and foot holds, I should have relaxed and enjoyed the view. Feeling pressured to do something right then, and not being able to go up, I did not want to lose my grip on the rock, so I immediately asked to go back down.
Then, my third mistake was to lack perspective. I did not straighten my legs, lean back, rest on the rope and look around, like Robert and Larry had told Kara to do. Duh! Eventually I figured all these things out. So, I wanted to climb the cliff a third time and reach the top. But by then, we had run out of time and it was necessary to head back down the mountain to the parking lot. So, now I want to go rock climbing again! Robert and Larry, when can we plan another trip?