On a sunny August Saturday in 2008, I had a chance to go rock climbing with my nephews Robert Parker and Matthew Laney. They both attended NCSU as engineering students. We went to Stone Mountain State Park in Wilkes County. I had rock climbed a half-dozen times before, but had not received any formal training.
There were many rock climbing moves that I had never tried, such as prussiking up and down a fixed rope using a smaller rope for a grip, ascending and descending with mechanical devices, changing protection off the ground while wholly dependent on one or the other to hold and friction climbing. Today Robert and Matthew taught me most of these new skills. I also got to belay right much more than I had before.
At one point I was climbing a vertical crack that was too narrow to fit in my boot toe, but too wide to get a positive grip with my hands. I was just barely hanging in there, about to fall, with not much more than tensed muscles and determination keeping me on the cliff. On several prior climbs, in similar situations, I had said “I can’t go any further” and fell back off the rock, protected from hitting the ground by the rope belay. Since each time I was top belayed, then my belayer lowered me safely to the ground.
But this time, I decided not to be a quitter. I have learned that I do not have to be the best at anything. But if I gut it out and try harder, I will be better than the average non-participant, or at least good enough to continue participating in the sport. The lesson is, don’t quit just because it is uncomfortable. As long as we show progress, our partners will probably keep inviting us to join them. I hung onto the flared crack, wavering left, right, up and down, trying to get my balance and a positive grip. I never got the positive grip. But I did get my balance. With a major grunt, I pushed my hands out in opposite directions on the rock and, using a move called “stemming,” made it up to the next positive foot hold. Great! Boy, this is fun!
Eventually, since Robert and Matthew are great rock climbers, and I am not, I got left on the ground to guard the gear while they ascended about twice as far as I had achieved. In the process, Robert passed the top roped anchor and did a “lead climb” the rest of the way. That is, he had no fixed rope above. He had to place protection, or little mechanical devices in rock cracks that probably will hold his weight if he falls. So far, I am still scared of lead climbing. I hope to learn this whole new set of skills in the future.
Later in the day, I was descending with a figure-8, and a prussik as a back-up. I got both devices straight while at the upper belay station, with each one attached to a separate locking carabiner on my harness. A few minutes later I had to turn my body over to get around Robert’s lead climb rope. That move twisted both my carabiners and caused the rope feeding through the figure-8 to slide across both locks. A few minutes later, half way down the cliff, I checked my protection. To my horror, both carabiner gates were unlocked and the figure-8 gate was being held open by the feeding rope. 75% of my protection had been disabled! I quickly got my balance and fixed the gates. I descended feeling much more humble. You cannot be too careful when rock climbing. Re-check every piece of gear, before every move.
At mid-afternoon we got chased off the mountain by a huge rain storm. As we crossed the field below the mountain, we looked back to see many little water falls geysering off the cliff where we had been climbing moments before.
Now I am getting antsy about what to do outdoors tomorrow. Mountain biking? Running? Tennis? Hiking? Is this a great country, or what?