A Climbing Team…

—There is more to a climbing team than just a strong lead climber, the strength comes in the team. While playing high school football, I heard the coach yell, “There is no I in Team!” I thought about it for a while and figured, “Yea, there is no “I” in team, nor is there a “U” but without U and I we have no team.

I have been wrong before, but for what it is worth I see the USA as a team, that is striving for an ideal. What if every time the quarterback called a play that we did not like we just threw a temper tantrum? Or we started pointing fingers at each other, for …? I think our first responsibility is to be the best we can be, then if we have extra energy and ideas, share them; rather than complain because the other guy, or the quarterback was not good enough. That is what synergy is about, synergy is way beyond teamwork, it is like magic.

The coach was right, there is no I in team, “But without you and I we have no team.” I see the USA as the summit of a mountain way more difficult to climb, than Mt. Everest. It is a wonderful ideal, but I think we often forget that without each other (to build our cars, our homes, supply food, medicine, leadership, planning, and, and, …) we have no team. IF we are to turn the USA into that wonderful Ideal many of us believe it can be, then we need the rest of the USA to help us tactfully define it and build a staircase to that wonderful vision.

I have had the opportunity to climb many summits, peaks, pinnacles and such, but not a single one would have been possible with other people. And surely, the USA will never amount to much “unless” we all pitch in, in positive healthy ways. I once heard a lady mention that when we point a finger at someone else, we should remember the rest of them are pointing at us.

Surely we have a climb ahead of us, what do you think will be the best way, and what steps will we need to take to get there, and how can we maximize our efforts, and … where do you fit in and how can the rest of us aid your plan, or …?

Below a good friend and climbing partner helped make it possible to climb this. Other times he was there for me when I over reached my grasp, isn’t that what living is about. Maybe the Corona virus is going to be our defining climb? What is the best way, and maybe we do need some changes, but change is hard. How can we grease the gears?

A rope (someone built a great rope) is a climbers second lease on life, literally.  A good belayer is part of the team, that has saved my tail a time or two.   Here’s an example where the belay chain handled an extreme situation, and why the rope/belay combination is so important.  This is a story I briefly talk about in one of my books. 

A competent belayer, along with a good rope, makes climbing more enjoyable and lowers the risks.  My belayer, a good friend and climbing partner, fit that picture.  Every time I look at these pictures of him and I climbing the Lost Arrow Spire, it reminds me of the confidence and synergy we experienced. 

First, I would like to share a thought. I used to hide anything the may look less than perfect. Obviously, if someone makes a mistake, they are not very good at what they do, right? Well, you can answer that, but I will share this thought with you. Over the past some odd years, I started sharing various incidents I have experienced in my life. Some could quite easily cause someone to paint me or my efforts in a negative way.

I have chosen to do this for two reasons: 1. I would like to help my fellow human being avoid some of these potentially dangerous situations. 2. It is my hope that it will somehow help improve your lives, improve your climbing skills, safety awareness, enjoyment factor, improve your well-being, etc.

The following is a situation where I fell roughly 35-40 feet, with a very small piece of pro (#3 stopper) and was stopped a few feet above the ground. Yes, I made a few calculated choices based on the big picture. I did it consciously, and intuitively. The question might be asked, did I make a mistake, well, maybe, but how else do we reach higher points in life, grow and improve our abilities?

This is a belay hero story.  It begins shortly after a great weekend climbing trip to the City of Rocks, near the Utah-Idaho border.  I had been using my old EB’s, the magic shoe of the day.  They worked well—they had shrunk to fit my foot perfectly.

The uppers were made of a heavy-duty cotton canvas, which, with time shrunk to fit your foot.  They fit so well I could stand on a psychological edge.  I must admit, when I returned home, I was feeling a little overconfident like I was all that and bag of chips.  I had led some hard routes and they felt almost easy.

Now it was time to break-in “new” EB’s.  My old ones had served me well, but they were sporting a few holes in the uppers, and the edges of the soles, where they attached to the uppers were rather thin.

EB’s reined for a number of years.  Eventually, they gave way to the “Spanish Rubber,” which FIRE introduced.  Nowadays, most TRB’s have comparably rubber, but when we moved from EB’s to FIRE’s, it was nothing short of magic. I could not believe how well they stuck to the rock!

Anyway, my climbing addiction called and I needed a partner so I asked Steve to join me on a Traditional climb called the “Green Adjective.”  Supposedly, the name was given to it, due to the language used during the first ascent.  It is quite popular; and considered one of the area’s classics, so much so it made the cover of Climbing Magazine.

It is a multi-pitch route with a total of three pitches, some climbers rap off after completing the first pitch, but I figure I am just getting warmed up by then.  

The direct route is considered a 5.10a, and leads onto a finger jam. This is per Mountain Project,  “This is the perfect thin seam crack that runs up the Perhaps Area wall. It starts on top of a nice, sunny, flat perch called the “Sun Deck Boulder”. Start either with a direct 5.10a start (spicy with tricky pro, bring your small stuff. . .)” 

Prior to climbing that day, I put on an extra pair of socks, inside my EB’s to fill the space. They had not started to shrink yet.  Steve had been a student in several of my rock climbing courses, and he took climbing fairly seriously, we hit it off well.  So much so we ended up making a trip to Yosemite Valley to do Lost Arrow Spire.  (That’s why I included the pictures)

 It has been my experience that the trust bonds a climber with their belayer, it can make a tremendous difference—”I believe a belayer is every bit as important as the lead climber.”  Sure a lead climber can gamble it with a mediocre belayer, who may not have the skills most of us would like them to have. I have seen a number of climbers quit climbing because that bond was not there and if freaked them out. Including myself, I quit for a number of months mostly due to noticing my belayer, a casual acquaintance, busy doing other things rather than watching the belay details.

Other things beside safety and climbing confidence come from that kind of synergy—which often leads to really great things. Like when we were setting up on the Valley Rim, and we met a hiker.  He may have been there to enjoy Yosemite Falls, which this time of year (fall) did not have much water, I did not ask.

Another climber using my camera took this picture, I added the color burst to it later. Notice the long slings on the pro. These helped prevent the rope drag from lifting the small wired stoppers from the finger crack. When using passive protection slings, opposition, along with other tactics can be critical, while dealing with resultant forces.

He was a total stranger to us, but we went with the flow, and I am glad we did, “He took some really great photos.”

It was a six-mile hike down from the high country, to the edge of the rim. We had to carry five ropes, a million carabiners, a sizeable selection of pro, slings, technical climbing shoes, plus food, water, the kitchen sink, and a few other things.  As we started the hike “I felt like a Pack Mule,” and did not want to carry my camera, even though I was excited about getting some good pictures of it, with my new camera.

I had just returned from active duty, and I had bought a new 35mm SLR camera at the PX.  Now, as I looked thousands of feet down to the Valley floor, and considered the exposure and the monumental task of climbing the tip and trying to figure out a way to make a traverse back to the rim, with only two of us—the idea of getting pictures seemed minuscule. I did not want to climb with a camera, nor did I want someone belaying me while trying to take pictures; so I decided to leave it on the Rim.  

As I was clipping it into a sling, I noticed a backpacker watching, and I asked him if he happened to be around during the day, “maybe he could click a picture or two of us climbing?” Then I showed him where my new camera was. Well, guess what he did!!!  He stayed there all day long and took some really great pictures. He took the picture at the beginning of this article, the one below of us making the tyrolean traverse back to the rim, and a few others.

Over the years I have taken some great pictures, even won some awards for them, because I did carry my camera, but now, my head was too busy considering the great exposure (a long ways above the ground).  I did not think he would know how to use my camera, let alone invest time in taking pictures, but I ended up trusting a total stranger with my expensive SLR camera–kind-of crazy?  Maybe, but in this case, the risk paid big dividends for him and us.    

I thought it was so kind of him, that I offered to tie a seat harness for him and one for his friends and let them make the Tyrolean Traverse to Arrow Tip.  While they were hanging on the rope I clicked a few pictures of them, while Steve waited patiently.  We got his address and we sent them to him—Trust is worth it.

Anyway, back to the important things about our “second lease on life.”  When purchasing a rope here are my priorities:  First, and foremost, is rope’s ability to manage shock loading; that’s a rope’s primary function—catching us if we fall, but I think that all too often taken for granted.

The lead section (A) (See Diagram) of the live end of the rope holds the brunt of a fall.  Section (B) holds about 65% of that force that ends up making it past the top piece of pro.  That means if a leader takes a six-foot fall, and they are stopped quickly, they can develop well over a 1,500 lbs of force (which is easy to do).  In this scenario, about 975 lbs is applied to the next section (B) of rope.   This means that due to the “pulley” effect, the anchor must hold about 2,475 lbs of force.

Depending on how many pieces of pro the leader has placed, the type of line it is, angles, etc. there can be a number of other sections on the live end. Each section holds a percentage of the force.  In some cases, the forces that reach the belayer is “0 lbs.”   This is due to the friction created by the various pieces of pro, the angles over the rock, the line, etc.   

The belay can end up being static, other than the rope stretch, or the “ropes ability to absorb shock.”   This is why a leader sometimes will say they are “sewing the route up.” A good protection line can help prevent this. They are putting it together to pay them their dividends.

Each time you fall on your rope it reduces its ability to hold a fall. With time it will recover much of its dynamic ability. Each rope is different.

Now for an eye-opener, “read this report, Analysis of the accident on Air Guitar, the VantageReport20040530  it is something every climber should read.  A word of warning, it appears very technical and it is.  It looks like it was written for a group of astrophysics masters.  Just breeze past the areas that are over our heads, and see if you can see how the different sections of rope, and the various resultant forces, helped to create this unfortunate accident. “Good training could have prevented this accident.”

Here’s the good news.  A skilled leader/belayer combination can keep the risks low, and have a great time doing it.  I have a personal example while we were climbing the Green A.  I mentioned the Lost Arrow climb because while climbing with Steve I never gave a second thought to whether my belayer would take care of me.  I can’t remember if we climbed Lost Arrow before or after this fall on the Green Adjective story occurred, but I was feeling a little cocky, and he, like a good teammate, tactfully helped to cover my error.

My error was twofold, one was I that I was feeling a little overconfident. Confidence is needed but too much is not needed. The other error was my “Situational Awareness” was down.  I should have adjusted things back some and climbed some 5.6 climbs while they were shrinking. Early in my climbing career, I used to begin the new climbing season, by trying to climb routes I had ended the previous season on—I scared myself silly a few times.  I knew better, but I had not learned it yet. We don’t do what we know; we do what we have learned.” With time I learned to start the new seasons conservatively and to work up to the harder routes.

At the base of the Green A, I was put on two pair of rather thick socks so my foot would not slop around in my technical boot.  I tied in with my usual, one-one half fisherman knot, as Steve was finishing setting up a good directional anchor (the Stick man in the picture) for his hip belay.  I checked my rack, and my slings, and asked, “On Belay?”  He replied, “Belay on.”  The 5.10a move is close to the ground and I was fresh so I moved past it and was up about 20 or 30 feet and stopped to place a small #3 stopper (lower arrow) and added a full-length sling to prevent the rope drag from lifting it out of the crack.  

Then I yelled, “Climbing,” and Steve yelled up to me, “Don’t you think you should put another piece in?”  He was right, a #3 was rather small, especially since it was my only anchor. I put another small stopper firmly in the crack, a couple of feet higher. Then I added another full-length sling. 

Slings or runners help prevent rope drag from lifting pieces out of the crack or help prevent misalignment. I strive to place anchors so they stay in place, rather than to fall on . . . If a climber places an anchor to fall on, the may avoid adding the extra length of a sling, which adds a couple of feet to their fall.

I yelled, “Climbing,” this time Steve gave me a “Climb On,” reply.  I climbed above the pro and noticed my feet were next to useless.  The sloppy fit was worse than I figured, but by then I was five or ten feet above my pro. Since climbing down is about three times harder, I decided to hunker down and go for it, and I did.  I had climbed it a few times before, so I did what we sometimes we must, while on lead. We make the choice between trying to hang on, and put a piece in and maybe fall, or use what strength we have left to push on to a better place—I  pushed on. 

Had I tried to downclimb or get a piece in, I would almost surely have fallen, but I would have been closer to my last piece? Sticking my fingers deeper in the crack I climbed on. After some grunting and groaning, I finally reached a familiar place where the angle backed off and the handholds were better (Top Red Arrow)–then I popped. 

The Green Adjective Climb, 5.10, 3 pitches The picture shows approximately where I was when I popped off, where my #3 wedge, and another maybe #2 or #3 wedge was placed, despite the pulley effect, both anchors stayed put, most likely due the dynamics of the rope and due to the skill of my belayer who was anchored using a Hip Belay while wearing gloves. Had he been using a mechanical belay device, the forces on the anchors would have most likely caused the small passive anchors to fail.

I remember being well aware of the fact I was air-born.  A nice thing about a good hip belay is the belayer can actually take in a good amount of rope, fairly quickly, thus reducing the length of the fall.  Next thing I recall is Steve apologizing for not letting me slide further.  He said, “The ground was coming up!   Then he finished lowering me to the ground, I untied and took a needed rest.

It must have been pretty a pretty impressive fall.  I remember hearing the climber who happened to be using my camera to take the opening photo, yell, almost at the top of his lungs, “That’s the longest fall I have ever seen!!!” Can’t remember his name, be he had joined us a few times while we were in the canyon.

After a short rest and some chit chat, Steve and I traded leads, , and finished the lead.  I cleaned the route, as he belayed me up to the bolts that served as a belay stance.  We decided to rap off and call it a day.

As I look back at this situation several things come to mind.  One, confidence is good, but overconfidence is not.  That balance can be tricky.  Two, Situational Awareness, there is more to a climb than pro, a line, and . . .  There is the weather, a team, equipment, and many other things that come into play. 

While breaking my shoes in, I should have been on top-rope, or maybe on a 5.6 or 5.7 lead climb. If you have not attended “Situational Awareness and Risk Exposure Training,” it would be a good idea.

Steve did me well.  His belay was near perfect, he performed an excellent dynamic hip belay.  Hip belays, when rigged properly and executed properly, minimize impact force, and in Trad climbing, sometimes anchors are less the bomb-proof, so a good belay is essential.  Had Steve been using a mechanical belay device, I am about 90% positive I would have cratered. 

Edges are a big concern. Knots act like edges, reduce the strength of a rope from 20% to 50%, depending on the knot. A tight radius occurs when we put a knot in the rope when it travels over a biner, and over other types of edges. I have never heard of a rope breaking in normal use, but I have heard of many ropes being cut while on edges.

♦For more in-depth information on knot strength.

Protect your rope from edges, this is very important.

Impact force increases cutting potential, and a belayer can control shock absorption to a good degree, and of course, the rope does too. Here’s something to note. Each time you fall on a rope it stretches. With time, it retracts, but repeated falls, over a short time period, will reduce the ropes ability to absorb shock, thus . . . good training will help fill in the other things like working capacity over an edge, initial elongation, Everdry treatments, the advantages and disadvantages of unicore technology

One comment I often hear is “you don’t want to hit a ledge or other hazard. True, but priority wise, if you anchors fail, things go to hell quite quickly. Anchors must be placed well, and they must stay in place.

Of course, a good rope, with a low impact force can help and is part of the combination (especially if you are using mechanical belay devices, but it is the big picture that makes everything work.  The leader, belayer, and rope along with the other gear that comes together to make the climbing experience a reasonable and fun pursuit.

I realize there is a lot more to the subject, and varying circumstances, but I hope I have been able to shed some light on the subject. I have added a chart that I have developed over the past years. It may make sense to you, but generally, people are very glad when they attend training.

Risk Potential by itself means very little. Risk Factor by itself means very little. It is the relationship they share that means everything. This is a very workable system, but like most things a little training is needed. I teach a 90 minute class that works well for this.

This post was taken from my upcoming book: “Rope, Pulleys, Rigging Systems, and Avoiding Dangerous Resultant 3rd edition”