Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Start of the Route

A few years ago, I was on contract in Arizona, writing smart little HPunix shell scripts and C programs. An employee asked me if I'd like to join him at the gym that night. I said sure and off we went...to the "rock gym"

I climbed until I was on fire. My interest was lit up, as I went back without him for many nights to boulder around in a pair of new painful shoes. Later, I bought a harness, then some quickdraws...

Skip ahead a few years. Now, I try to climb several times a week, and although I don't have a schedule on when to climb any particular grade, I've gradually gotten better. I sometime concentrate on strength, sometimes efficiency, sometimes stamina. Whatever. It's still one of the most fun things I've found for me. I own lots of gear, although it never seems to be enough.

Today, I wanted to try and describe for non-climbers what the sensation is like to climb. Not your very first climb, but the environment of when you first go up several pitches of a moderate climb outside. Your very first climbing experience is going to be smaller and certainly much more personal. But if you continue with it, you'll soon be in the situation I'm about to describe:

You'll be nervous. Anxiety and it's management are part of almost every climb. Not confusion or panic, but closer to exhilaration. Your partner(s) will be a strong guiding force, double-checking your knots, asking you about your shoes, clothing, food and water, rescue routes. You may or may not be the belayer for the lead, since you'll be on a mild to moderate route.

So you strap on your harness, leave your shoes nearby at the ready. The rope gets flaked out, the leader ties in, and you watch them.

head up
They'll place a bit of gear at the bottom to direct the rope where they want it, they slowly climb further. Nuts, cams, gear go in the rock, with slings and carabiners every which way. They may give you a bit of chat about some
sketchy gear
, but for the most part you'll belay them up onto a wall of rock.

This for me was one of the most exciting stages of climbing. My heart was pounding as I watched my friend head up a lumpy rock, wind in our hair, as I stood clipped into a little ledge we'd hiked to in Washington state's Cascade Range. It was an easy 5.7 on the YDS, but the vista was beautiful, with just the right amount of fog and snow to make us feel like alpine extremists. Little did I know about the world of climbing!

After what will seem like an eternity, with your lead probably out of sight, your neck sore from trying to watch them, and you a little bit chilly from just standing there in climbing clothes, you get the signal: "Off Belay!" will come down from the heavens, or the radio, or through a jerky rope signal. Whatever method you've worked out, you'll let go of the rope, put your shoes on, check your knot one last time, and eventually yell back up "Climbing!"

"Climb on!" your lead will tell you, and you'll be off. Rock is colder and vastly different than a gym. Grit, dirt, strange angles and unexpected smooth surfaces will present themselves to you. Your lead may not take up the rope so much as you've been used to on toprope.
, giving you a "bouncy" feeling with the rope stretch. You'll be using your arms heavily, burning energy that could be more efficiently used through your legs, but that comes in time. Up you go as the second.second!

Wind! Weather! Hot or cold, there will be lots of new things to deal with. Put your hand in a crack, and a frog might jump out, or a spider may crawl across it. You'll be slowly stepping each foot as carefully as you can, concentrating on not slipping, not "falling" and taking the pro out of the wall. It'll clip to your sling or harness, then dangle and jingle all over. At any crux of the climb, it may seem "impossible" to grip, get friction, reach or balance the way it demands, but somehow, you'll make it.

Soon enough, you'll get a respite on a large ledge and get a view of your vertical progress. All the world will spread away from you in a large vista. A great feeling of you getting yourself here may enter your head. Congratulations…you're climbing!

Eventually you'll reach the belay station, where your leader should pile on ample praise. You may discuss the climb, certain interesting positions, or the gear used. Then, the leader will instruct you on managing the rope, ensure you're safe and as comfortable as possible, and head up again. Repeat.

After a few hours of this, where you may climb 3, 4 or 5 pitches in a single day - which is a lot when just starting out - your concept of height will disappear.

© Hanmi Hubbard Meyer - All Rights Reserved

"High" simply describes where you are, without knowing what measurement applies. The climb may present you with a few more exposed positions, where you have more wind, sun and sky around you than actual rock. During these times, even with a rope tugging you safely up the wall, you may fight the feeling that you're on a precipice.

No matter what though, if you slip and fall or climb through, your belayer has you safe. This trust must be present at all times. If your trust the belayer, their practices and state of mind, safety and skill level , you can fall at any time. Without this, don't climb with them. Poor belayers seldom have repeat partners, and for this climb you're heading to the top with utmost confidence.

The top!

Clip in yet again and relax! The view hasn't changed much over the hours, but the exhaustion of working to get here will mix with the excitement of reaching your goal to be a wonderful sense of relief and accomplishment. Have some food, take your shoes off - clipping them safe - and thank your leader for the great time.

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