One week in September, 2006, my nephew Robert Parker called me to see if I wanted to accompany him on a rock climbing trip to Pilot Mountain State Park in Surry County, NC. Robert had an occasion to be in the area while his wife visited with her family, and he needed something athletic to do on Saturday. I readily said yes.
Robert is a real rock climber. I am a wannabe. I have most of the basic climbing gear, like rope, harness, carabiners, ascenders, prussiks, runners, chalk, helmet and gloves. But I don’t have lead climbing protection, like cams, chocks and nuts. That means I can follow a lead climber; or I can be top roped, which is climbing under a rope fixed above on the cliff. Robert is capable and equipped for lead climbing, but I am such a neophyte that I would be dangerous as his follower, so with him I have only top roped. That is the way that we climbed this trip.
Robert had been to Pilot Mountain several times and was familiar with the layout. We met and geared up in the parking lot. He registered us at the ranger kiosk and led the way down the trail to the cliffs. The day was hazy and foggy so there were not a lot of views. Because we were top roping, we went first to the top of the route and tied the climbing rope to some anchors. Since there is no rope to clip into during this step, the climber who ties in the tope rope is fairly exposed to falling off the cliff. To me this is the most dangerous part of climbing. Robert always does the tie-in with Zen like calmness. Then he threw the rope over the cliff.
Even though rappelling – sliding down a rope - is basic to rock climbing, and I had been climbing a half dozen times, I had never rappelled. Robert offered to teach me. Most of my outdoor career I have extended my athletic reach by trying new and somewhat more dangerous things, like white water canoeing, mountain biking and scuba diving. So I was used to being a little scared and proceeding with the activity. But the most sphincter tightening thing I have ever done was to step over the edge of that 100 foot cliff, clipped to a rope with nothing to keep me from sliding down the rope except the pressure from my hands on the figure 8 descender. And until I started sliding, I had no experience of how much pressure was too much, or…gulp…too little. After the first step, I locked down the descender in a death grip and hung there for awhile, just to prove to myself that I could keep my altitude. Then I tentatively followed Robert’s advice and my memory of watching other climbers and started bouncing down the cliff face. I resisted the urge to hug the rock and kept my feet well in front of me. The lesson worked and I was able to rappel to the bottom in good control and with a fair degree of fun.
We then got down to the business of climbing. As always, Robert climbed first and I belayed him. The life of the climber hangs in the hands of the belayer, who controls the feeding out of the rope and stops it short if the climber falls. So I was pretty tense the first few minutes on belay. After awhile I got into the situation and enjoyed watching where Robert placed his hands and feet, trying to learn how he climbed. After ascending the entire cliff in short order, Robert had me lower him back down. Next, my turn.
As with many athletic activities, climbing looks easier than it is. Don’t you just climb up the rock, like ascending a natural ladder? Well, no, there is more to it. I have found snow skiing, surfing, mountain biking – most sports – take a certain amount of straight ahead strength, balance and pure effort, over and above the specific skills of the sport, to actually get over the snow, waves or trail. Climbing is the same way. Beyond all the technical knowledge of how to manage the equipment, each move requires the strength to pull yourself up a difficult place, and the balance to hang there while pulling. I could not climb where Robert had gone. I could approach the same crux spots, put my hands and feet in the same places, but I did not have the strength or balance to pull myself up over the hump. I would simply fall off the rock. Of course, that is still some fun, so I enjoyed bouncing on the rope between attempts.
Robert took several more turns and climbed the same route a couple of different ways. Then we packed up the gear and headed back to the parking lot. Before going home we hiked over to the main trail and saw the Pilot Mountain peak. A good time was had by all.