FALLING, LEARNING, GROWING and INSTRUCTING
There is a rock solid truth to this crag game, going up involves coming down. Part of the fun is to push ability beyond physical and mental limits and see when skill gives way to gravity to bring us back to Earth. Add students into this equation and risk management becomes a focus of attention. It ain't Disneyland out there.
My first leader fall was a thirty footer. I was well schooled up 'til then, no stupid error in judgment. Just tip toeing about the limit of my ability. My mentor, twenty years ago, who watched my screamer at Lovers Leap near Lake Tahoe, California, still talks about Mr.Toads Wild Ride. Joel Moore thought I didn't have it in me, after I stopped my swing, to shake off the DT's and get back in that crack. I proved us both wrong.
My belayer and I were rookies, green as a pickle but well practised on placing nuts for top rope climbs. Bill saved my life with his belay. He quit at pitch end. I scared hell out of him. Probably other stuff, too. His ride was over.
Me, on the other hand, walked right through the looking glass. Right then I understood impact force and what an Edelrid 11mm kernmantle could handle. I also knew what I could handle. I wanted more from the mountain, from myself. As I jammed up that corner of granite, I had my hands plugged into the energy source of the universe. I was charged and ready for adventure. I've had quite a number of risky exploits over the years, learned a lot about the crags and equipment we use to scale them. I have died a hundred times and like the Phoenix, came back to tie in again and pass on my skills and experience to students who are now wilderness guides. The crux never ends.
As the Climb Smart campaign (Climbing Gym Association) used to say, "Climbing is dangerous. Stack the odds in your favor." Climbing is an extreme sport. Extremely damaging if one pushes their limit over the edge with few, if any, precautions. When you increase skills by doing harder and higher climbs, or involve clients, hazard and risk management are gripped in an increasing knowledge-experience game that continually ups the ante.
How high up the learning arete are you willing to ascend? Begin within yourself. Know what's in the nooks and crannies of who you are, weaknesses and strengths. Take a mental inventory. There is nothing worse than seeing a new aspect of your personality (or partners) in the middle of a mountain crisis. Sometimes such revelations cannot be avoided, but most times they can. Who is your mentor, someone who has been around the horn? Even John Long had Jim Bridwell.
You want to improve your cragging skills, like I did at Lovers Leap, right? Risk management will be called into play as you practice and take your own spills, debrief the outing, then do the same with students at a much more conservative
-- safe -- level. Remember the Outward Bound diddy, I heard and I forgot, saw and I remembered, did and understood. In this process you are growing in wisdom. With this in mind, here a few points to ponder Joel and others instilled in me:
- Believe in yourself. Trust your instincts and ability but don't be crazy.
- Have confidence in partner(s) and students. Help them trust their instincts. Find adventure.
- Try climbs way over your head, so you can learn to think on your feet. One way to do this: Rappel a trad or sport route a grade harder than your best lead (a pitch with no fall hazards). Sew it up with gear, maybe hang long runners. Top rope to first or second piece of pro to avoid ground fall. Have at it. Remember, ropes / slings can hold the most severe whippers unless damaged. I used to test this truth of physics by jumping out of trees harnessed in, rope tied off to a stout branch, king size mattress down below just in case. This was a good place to learn about fall factors.
- Read as much about equipment as you can.
- Study the yearly booklet, Accidents in North American Mountaineering.
- Take notes. Keep a journal. Doodle diagrams of belays anchors, etc.
- If you are an instructor, don't learn lessons at the expense of students. Period.
- When discussing accidents or near misses, think in who, wat, where, how, and why or why not terms. When is also important, as in when did the party first have a hint the lightening storm was approaching? Did they miss the clues from the day before?
- Study your gear, especially nylon. Do you know how to feel your rope, really massage it for internal injuries? How many falls your line has held? How long?
- Inventory your gear. Do you know every piece and its history? Too critical? A bit of an exaggeration, but how important is your life? Mine is more valuable than death can describe. I love my life, and . . .
I love to climb. I still enjoy taking controlled risks at times to climb harder and higher. Even take a student out on occasion. I have gotten better at spotting antecedents to accidents (precursors to problems that present tell-tale signals of impeding doom). I'm still learning. Still need beta from pro's in the field.
As I close out this magnum opus, twenty some years ago my junior college outdoor prof, George Bleekman, inspired this eighteen year old kid by summiting the Swiss Matterhorn in winter conditions. Knowing I was following in his footsteps, and beyond, often with students in tow, he said, to keep me anchored in reality: "Be safe out there. Climbs can be repeated. Life can't. Be careful out there."