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Rock climbing around here really got its start after World War II, if you don’t count things like my parents climbing the Little Matterhorn using a clothesline as a safety rope back in the 20s.
My brother was a hikemaster at the Y Camp in the 50s, and we risked our necks using 120 foot hemp ropes, war surplus ski boots and carabiners which are D shaped rings with a spring gate used to handle ropes, hand-hammered French pitons we bought from a guy in Boulder who sold equipment out of his basement. Fifteen years later, Holubar would sell out to North Face for a fancy price.
Using substantially more nerve than good sense, we climbed various rock faces in the area without knowing whether they were particularly easy or difficult. We just knew it could be climbed or it couldn’t.
But I haven’t done any of that kind of climbing in more than 30 years, so when a friend suggested an afternoon of rock climbing, I thought we’d just grab a rope and tennis shoes and go. It seems, however, that since I last climbed, things have become a bit more complicated.
First, we don’t wear our rock shoes anywhere but on the rock face itself. We carry our shoes to the climb. Our rope is now 50 meters long (165 feet) and comes in a rope bag. The rope is nylon has a braided cover and can easily handle an impact force of more than one ton. I had a seat harness, chalk bag and gear sling. Carabiners now come as D-shaped, locking, ultralight and bent-gate, and you cannot find pitons outside of mountaineering museums. Instead, we have various forms of protections, devices and “friends.” There are Sticht plates which are belaying devices to absorb the energy of a fall, ascenders, descenders, active (spring loaded) and passive camming devices: hexcentric chocks, stopper nuts, tri-cams, Metolius 4-cam units, and Hugh Banner Cobra Slide Nuts.
When I was young a simple bowline knot served for almost every purpose. Today we use Water knots and Figure Eights.
If all this sounds more complicated, you should know that it’s also much safer, mostly as a result of our generally litigious society. Thirty years ago we bought our ropes and pitons and if the rope broke or the piton didn’t stay in the rock we figured it was pretty much our own fault. Today, of course, the manufacturer is sure to be sued, so the equipment is much, much better. Also much, much more expensive.
All American climbs are now graded as to difficulty, and rock climbs are classified using the Yosemite Decimal System from 5.0 to 5.14, depending on who’s doing the rating. The climb we did, parts of which were 5.6, was just moderately difficult, which is nice, because I’m about moderately skilled, moderately old, and moderately scared. Fortunately, my climbing partner was a world-class mountaineer who has led climbs in the Himalayas and around the world, so I was quite literally in good hands as I used parts of my body I had forgotten I had to gain a purchase on the rock face.
When we reached the top we rappelled down, which is to say, slid down the face on a rope. In the old days this trick was accomplished by passing the rope between one’s legs, around the back and over a shoulder. I almost always wound up with a rope burn on my neck. Today it’s done with one of a number of rappelling devices which make this aspect of climbing safer and more fun.
While we were climbing we were surrounded by “hang doggers.” These are young people who hang on ropes secured from above to find routes on particularly difficult rock faces. Regarded as cheating by some climbers, this technique results in some climbs being made rather easily which would otherwise be nearly impossible. My partner derided the practice as contrary to real mountaineering.
So how sore and banged up am I? Well, pretty sore and banged up. I found that age has robbed me of endurance, strength and flexibility, but other than that, I’m in pretty good shape.
So am I going to do it again? Well, I’m looking at some pretty nice Dolomite Magica Rock shoes with a full length sticky rubber sole, cut-away uppers, good lateral reinforcement and Cambrelle nylon linings…
© 1985 – 2003, David E. Steiner
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