Episode VI : The Return of the Unready (Climbing)

As a reward for finishing several segments of Hooked on Phonics, Robert treated James to a Guided Expedition to Pilot Mountain, North Carolina. Our guide was Michael Pinkston, owner of the Climbing Place. This was the first time James or Robert had been on an outdoor climbing trip.

Here we see James learning how to sit on a rock, Michael preparing to set up a toprope, a nice shot of our vantage point high on the mountain, and Michael about to rappel down the side of the mountain. Note the anchors set into the rock to Michael's right in the second image. These consist of bolts drilled into the rock, hangers attached to the bolts, and carabiners clipped into hangers. A y-shaped confection of cord called a cordolette (the blue rope barely visible in the 4th image) is attached to the carabiners, and a further pair of carabiners are clipped into the bottom of the Y (carabiners are often used in opposed pairs so that no possible rope motion will cause them to unclip; the truly paranoid use opposed pairs of locking carabiners!). The toprope runs through the bottom pair of carabiners.

Since a fall from 50 or 60 feet up onto rocky rubble (plus the occasional bounce on the way down as an appetizer) can seriously put a crimp in one's day (in particular since when you call 911 from the side of a mountain they tend to arrive several hours later than you would like), you want to have as much redundancy in the system as possible. In toproping, for failure to occur, one of the following would have to happen:

  • The rope breaking. Modern climbing ropes are immensely strong with a huge safety factor; they are designed to stretch and absorb the force of an long uncontrolled fall and laugh about it. You could lift a small car with one of these babies.
  • The rope somehow becoming detached from the climbing harness. Assuming you put on your harness correctly and tied the rope into it securely, you'll have no problems here. You did double check it before you climbed halfway up that cliff, didn't you?
  • Since the Y-shaped cordolette is connected to both anchors, if one anchor (in other words, either the bolt, the hanger, or BOTH carabiners connected to the hanger) fails, you're fine (your underwear may not be in great shape though). If both anchors fail, you “crater”. Since the bolts are these whopping big expansion bolts that are literally wedged into the bolt holes by an ungodly amount of pressure, this isn't likely. But since bolts have been known to work loose, in particular by expansion and contraction of the rock during several climbing seasons, one hopes they are relatively new and secure. Similarly, the hangers and carabiners are extremely strong (you'd use them to connect the aforementioned rope to the small car).
  • And of course, if both carabiners attached to the bottom of the cordolette break, you get a crash course in what it feels like to be a pizza.
  • Finally, the cordolette itself could snap (either twice on the two upper parts of the Y, or twice on the bottom part, as it is doubled down there). The cordolette is this puny looking bit loop of rope that happens to be made out of Spectra, a fiber that thinks Kevlar is for wussies.

Now, you may think that all this massive over-engineering would give a climber a sense of security. Let me disabuse you of this notion. When you are 50 feet up a rock face with a dicey hold and you have to make a quick move to stabilize yourself or you are going to peel, your intellectual confidence in the whole shooting match isn't worth squat.

And when you make it to the top and you realize that now you must, defying millions of years of biological programming, lean back and trust that rope with your life while your belayer lowers you to the ground (while you keep your feet flat on the rock and your hands away from it), you start to comprehend the meaning of the word “faith”.

And when you are looking up at your 7-year-old son who happens to be 50 feet above you in the same situation, then, my friend, you learn what prayer is. You start moving yourself so that if a lightning bolt hits the rope, and he starts heading down, you can ensure that he lands on the only soft thing in the area, which would be YOU. The upside being that if he lands on your head, you won't have to explain it his mother – in this life, anyway.

And when you are a computer programmer, for whom Murphy's Law is not just a rule of thumb but an article of religious belief, that is when the paranoia sets in.

Thus you will understand that when James decided to do a little close to the ground bouldering, Robert could relax for a minute…

But it was not to last. We started to do what Michael referred to as a “nice little climb”, rated about 5.7 in the arcane system used to rate such things in the United States. Robert also rated it 5.7 – as in “for each 5 feet James goes up, Robert ages 7 years”. You will note that in the first image, Michael is checking out some of the early moves in the route without bothering to use the rope. He casually climbed up and down the first 30 feet or so, without even putting on proper climbing shoes. So he's either very good or has a death wish. In these and many of the subsequent images, James is wearing what he claims is a smile.

We will only bother you with two images of Robert in this installment, one of which shows off his massive calf muscles (twice voted “Most likely to be eaten first if we are reduced to cannibalism”), and the other showing how much he trusts the rope (he is 3 feet off the ground at this point).

And now for what you've all been waiting for, James' Big Climb. After being informed that it was necessary to obtain a leaf from a plant located high on the cliff in order to save the world (do kids really believe this stuff, or do they just pretend to do so in order to humor us?), off he went.

At no time during this ascent was he hanging from the rope (until the end when he came down). In some of the pictures it looks like he is tippitoeing up the rock, but good climbing shoes let you do some pretty amazing things!

Outdoor climbing is very different from Gym climbing. The holds are very different, in particular the cracks, and require a lot of new techniques. And the fear-factor is much amplified – taking a 5-6 foot freefall in the gym from 20 feet up before the rope catches you is nothing, because you know that even if a crazed ninja slashes that rope, you're not going to fall that far, you're falling onto a hard but flat surface, and the hospital isn't that far away. It's a controlled environment; you expect things to work.

Not so on the real rock. Even moves are not that difficult, stuff that you'd crank off in the gym without even thinking about it, become more difficult; more important. You take baby steps. Every little bump in the rock could be a trap. You try like hell to avoid the fall – to avoid trusting the rope. But you know that when you get to the top, you'll have to trust it on the belay down.

And when your feet finally do touch the ground again, you are a happy primate. Also an insane primate, because you pretend you were not afraid, and do it again.

Stay tuned for our next episode, which will probably be confusingly entitled Episode 1: The Mock-Rock Menace