On Climbing Mountains, Part VI

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Day One–Rappelling

After an afternoon of orientation and checking out our equipment at the base camp in Salida, we spend the first night in the tent and then wake to the breakfast song before good daylight. We pack our sleeping bags and roll the tent and strap everything to our backpacks. Breakfast is a burrito with eggs and sausage and coffee, then we load onto the bus for a day of rappelling and the hike to low camp.

We still don’t know our guides very well. They’ve been pretty busy hustling gear, answering questions, making minor repairs to sleeping bag zippers and the backpacks, and distributing food to everyone. We’d had a devo the night before and spent an hour on an artificial rock wall. Phil, my former student, was polite but not outgoing, though I still didn’t know whether that was due to some imagined classroom resentment, or if that was just his nature. The other guide was truly just a kid, 18 years old, and in his first season as a guide. He was short and skinny and with his long blonde hair and Owen Wilson nose, he’d earned the nickname “Dupree,” after the Wilson film “You, Me, and Dupree.” On first impression, they were both nice enough, but so laid back that I had my doubts about their ability to lead us into the wilderness.

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We drove about thirty minutes up a forest service road and parked beside a waterfall, then hiked into the woods and came to a fairly sheer rock wall. Phil and Dupree took the ropes on ahead to set up the rappel pitch, leaving us to do some “solo time” with our journals. The two were gone about forty-five minutes, but when they came back for the group and led us to the site for the rappel, my confidence in the two blossomed. They had set up two rappel ropes and two belay ropes covering about a 150 foot descent down a sharply sloped but not vertical wall. The ropes were anchored to two trees at the top of the pitch, and then the anchor trees were anchored to rocks further up the slope. In essence, once we were buckled into our climbing harnesses and tied off, in order to fall we’d have to pull a tree out by the roots, dislodge a Volkswagen sized boulder that looked to be a permanent part of the mountain, and pull either Dupree or Phil off the rock, since they would be on belay. Their rope work was not only impressive, it was beautiful art, given the intricacy of their knots and the colorful design of the climbing ropes. One look at the guides’ ropework and I knew we were in good hands for the duration of the trip.

Phil, our guide, setting up the ropes to teach rappelling

Phil, our guide, setting up the ropes to teach rappelling

Julia Rose was nervous about going down the rope. She’d never really betrayed a fear of heights, but then, looking out from the observation deck of the Eiffel Tower or the Willis Tower in Chicago, while quease-inducing, seems relatively safe enough. As the members of our group started pairing off to go down the ropes, I could tell by her body language, her shying away from the edge, her willingness to let the next person strap on the harness, that she was afraid. It didn’t help that between the tying off, basic instruction, the rappel, and retrieving the gear, it took a good thirty or more minutes to get someone down the face, and since Julia Rose wasn’t eager to take her turn, the waiting just made the inevitable worse because she had to think about it

“Let’s go down together,” I said. “I’ll be on the rope beside you, walking down. I can talk to you.”

She agreed and put on a brave front. Phil got me tied into my rope and I walked down a few feet. The rappel started on a 45 degree slope, then dropped off a lip. From where we stood, we couldn’t see what the rest of the rappel looked like. I knew it wasn’t vertical, but we were still backing right off the edge of a cliff. There is nothing natural about such an action.

I had rappelled a few times before, and more than that, I had spent a few years building power line towers and climbing wood poles, working a hundred or more feet above the ground. The safety belt I climbed in wasn’t even a harnesses. It was literally a padded belt buckled around my waist, with a safety strap attached to the tower or around the pole, and worn loose enough that once I was safetied off, I could literally twist in the belt and work with my back turned to the tower.

Dupree, the guide, demonstrating trust in the belay

Dupree, the guide, demonstrating trust in the belay

To be safe you had to stand with your knees locked and feet firmly planted against the steel of the tower, or, if climbing on a pole, with your spikes dug into the wood. You had to lean out from the structure, so that the angle of your body and your  weight pushed your feet into the steel. If you tried to stand too close to the tower or the pole, you would likely fall right through your belt and down to the ground. Leaning back didn’t feel natural, but it was safe. I leaned against the harness and locked the free end of my rappelled rope behind my back. I could stand there all day.

Julia Rose and I going over the edge

Julia Rose and I going over the edge

Julia Rose backed tentatively down the rope a few feet. She was scared, and couldn’t make herself lean back. She kept wanting to stand up straight and hold on to the rope at her waist, which made her feet slip out from under her. At one point she went to her knees, pretty hard, and it took a while for Dupree to talk her back into the right position. There was not a lot I could do for her, other than model the correct stance. There were enough people telling her what to do that she was getting confused, and my heart hurt for her in the way that possibly only a parent can understand when we watch a child struggle. The right thing to do is to let her struggle, though, and she began to get a feel for the rope. She made her way slowly down the face of the mountain. We unbuckled at the bottom and made our way back to the top, where we were able to relax and prepare for the afternoon hike to follow.

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