Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Cave in the Sky

What follows is a piece I'd written for publication in a local magazine that is now defunct.  I offer it here for your reading pleasure.  I have lots of old climbing stories that I occasionally put into black and white.  This is a relatively new composition whereas a lot of my climbing stories were written years ago and have only been updated recently to blog or go into print.

I told Alexis she didn’t need all of that gear.  For one thing, there was almost nowhere to place gear in the huge deep chimney, and for another, it would just get in the way as she wriggled through the tight spaces on her way to the summit of Tower Rock.

I glanced over to get confirmation from JB.  He was nowhere to be seen.

“Right!” a voice called from somewhere inside Tower Rock.  Alexis and I craned our necks to see his head poking out of the dark shadows of the chimney crack of Cavers’ Route.  I went back to trying to convince her to leave thirty or forty pounds of gear behind, but Alexis had always been a timid leader and was insistent that she needed every piece of climbing gear she owned to climb the route.

“Even if you fall…” I began, utilizing my climbers’ morbid sense of humor in a last ditch effort to persuade her, “ …your body will get wedged in the chimney anyway.  You won’t deck.”  Decking is what climbers call falling from a climb and hitting the ground.

“Har, har,” she replied and took off climbing up the first pitch of Cavers’.

Caver’s Route is the oldest known climbing route in the Red River Gorge area.  It was climbed as far back as the 1950s by—you guessed it—cavers practicing their ropework for deep caves.  The route follows a wide crack system that splits the entire south end of Tower Rock from the rest of the formation.  Tower Rock is a free standing block of stone roughly the size of a fifteen story office building, completely separated from the main cliffline and lacking a non-technical climbing route to the top.  That means you can’t just hike up and check out the view.  You have to earn a view from the summit of Tower.

I followed Alexis up the route.  All-the-while JB was mysteriously absent; though we could occasionally hear giggles echoing through the cool shadows of the crack system.  While Alexis was timid JB was comfortable scampering unroped up and down the easily climbed and downclimbed fissure in the rock.

Like a woodrat, he slipped unnoticed around us as we made slow upward progress.  At times we’d see him on the ground looking up and playfully taunting us.  And then at other times he’d be on the summit tossing down words of ridiculing encouragement.  I thought it was funny, but JB’s constant climbing up and down the rock without gear and sneaking through the cave-like crack unseen had started to unnerve Alexis.

“I’m stuck!” she called back to me.  I sat on a sunny ledge at the outer edge of the chimney and about 75 feet above the ground as she trailed the rope through the actual “cave” section of the route.  It’s a crawling traverse through a tunnel filled with various sized rocks and boulders. 

Stuck?  I thought.  Scrawny Alexis…stuck?  Then she explained that her rack of climbing gear was hopelessly tangled up.  And she could hardly move her head because she’d insisted on wearing a helmet even though JB and I had both told her that was a bad idea. 

All of that aluminum hardware that was designed to catch a falling climber is also very effective at halting a crawling climber when it dangles between rocks and gets wedged into tight places in the darkness.  And while helmets are a good idea when caving and climbing, they can frequently make squeezing through tight places more difficult than necessary.

I refrained from calling back “I told you so!” and instead offered the best advice I could:

“There’s no way I can get in there and rescue you; you’ve corked the bottle!”

Much grumbling and cursing ensued as she worked for quite a long time to untangle slings, metal gear, the climbing rope, and all of that long red hair from the gnarled innards of Tower Rock.  Finally the rope went taut as she crawled out of the second pitch of the route to the far side.

I couldn’t help but grin like an idiot when I had crawled through to the other side and saw her frazzled look. 

“I told you you only needed three pieces of gear,” I couldn’t help myself.  I think she may have punched me in the arm on the way to my face.

Somewhere deep inside the rock I heard giggles.

Where is he?” Alexis demanded.  I shrugged as much as I could in the tight confines of the third belay perch.

Two more short but less dramatic pitches carried us to the flat summit of Tower Rock.  We enjoyed the view of the Middle Gorge and after JB had finally joined us we pressed him to explain how he’d been getting up and down the rock repeatedly to be above and below us without directly passing us on the route.  It was too convoluted to explain, but involved rappelling down obscure routes and climbing uproped up other easy routes to bypass our “Student Climber” party.

After it was all said and done Alexis agreed she’d brought far too much gear.  She’d seen for herself what JB and I had tried to describe.  For one, there’s no need for a lot of protective gear.  The climbing is secure deep in the crack.  There’s little opportunity that a climber could fall.  And second, the tight spaces of the crack don’t leave enough room for a climber, their gear, and all of the mental baggage that gets dragged along.  Sometimes it’s best to trust your friends and give up a little control.  And some people only learn the hard way.
As an aside, JB (Jason Burton) and Ben Sollee are going to be performing a fund raising concert for the Red River Gorge Climbers' Coalition this coming Saturday at Sky Bridge Station in Pine Ridge Kentucky at 6:00 or 6:30pm (conflicting advertisements).  There is a suggested donation of $5 to $10.

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