Climbing Rocks

posted Apr 28, 2012, 9:53 PM by Paul Wagner   [ updated Apr 28, 2012, 9:54 PM ]
Six of us stood in front the vertical wall of rock on the side of Mt. St. Helena, staring sraight up. That morning we'd been tutored and outfitted, trained in all the techniques and commands of rock climbing. There was only one thing left for us to do.
 
Elijah, our REI guide, teaching us the ropes
Somebody was going to have to start climbing.
 
The first ten or fifteen feet looked easy, but then things got more complicated. Elijah, our charmingly calm and competent guide from REI, explained that sometimes you just have to get up there to see what to do. But then, he was an expert, and had climbed this same face many times.
 
That's Eijah in the orange shirt, left and below right, getting us ready to climb.
 
None of us had ever really climbed much outside of a gym. The younger four people on the climb all had experience in a rock climbing gym, and some of them looked very comfortable with all of this.  That would pay off on the rock, too.
 
I hadn't ever climbed in a gym, and hadn't been on a rock wall in forty years. I generously volunteered to belay the first climber in our group, allowing one of the younger guys to climb first.  It was the least I could do.  Really.
 
He started up quickly enough, and before I knew it, he had hoisted himself over the lip and up to the top of the rope, sixty or seventy feet above us.  While he had been climbing for some time indoors, this was a pretty good show for the first time on real rock. I eased the rope out to let him back down the cliff and let the next guy climb.
Elijah setting up the ropes
 
Sooner or later, I was going to have to start climbing like everybody else. I watched a couple more climbers, tried to learn from their mistakes, and finally stepped up to the wall. The first few feet were obvious. And then there was a tricky little section where I couldn’t really see any handholds. I made it two thirds of the way up the wall before I decided that it was far enough. 
As I was being lowered away, Elijah pointed out that I didn't have to hang onto the rope with both hands.  After all, if it broke, my hands weren't going to stop me from falling.  And it wasn't going to break.   Trust the rope, he advised. 
I did, but it took a conscious decision on my part to do that.
Over the next couple of hours we took turns on different routes up the rock walls. My favorite route seemed complicated right at the start, and I eased over a bit to the left, to see if things were any better over there. A couple more feet up, and then I rested on my knee, easing over to another ledge. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, with each piece getting you just a bit closer to finishing. There was a nice crack going up to the right, and another that took me a bit left. And then as I stood up on that last foothold, I realized that I could touch the carabiner at the top of the climb.
I gave it a pat, took a nice long look around, and let my belayer know I was ready to get lowered back down to terra firma. 
One thing I loved about this day was that our group was a wonderful combination of four young gym climbers from three different countries, and two of us “older” men who were just there for the ride. The chemistry of the group and the leadership of Elijah could not have been more supportive and fun.   There were lots of handshakes, hugs, and plenty of reassurance to those who were climbing up the walls.  It really does make a difference to know tha the person belaying you below is not only paying out rope, but also paying close attention. 
I didn't fall during any of these climbs, nor did I try any complicated moves that struck me as being risky.  I was more interested in seeing what felt comfortable up there, sometimes fifty feet high.  And so I didn't make it to the top of  a couple of the climbs.
But next time…
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