Monday, February 1, 2016

Gym Rat Trap

Its funny how quickly the rock climbing landscape changes in these parts.  I imagine it’s similar in other locales, but I’ve had the unique experience of watching the fabric of Red River Gorge climbing grow in size and change in patterns from year to year.
There’s something that’s curious to me.  A new safety concern is of ropes being severed on fixed quickdraws (“draws” hereafter).  Typically ropes are being cut during short falls close to the ground by the first or second bolt fixed gear. 
The cause seems to be that as climbers repeatedly climb the route the rope runs in exactly the same location through the fixed gear with each ascent.  We know ropes harbor pesky sand and grit in its fibers—especially in sandstone climbing areas—and these abrasives quickly wear away the soft aluminum (and apparently steel as well, but not as fast) carabiners until a sharp edge forms.  The ‘biners don’t fail, they simply sever the rope.
Don't. Cut. The rope.  Matt Damon.
A positive side effect of this is that most of the related falls are short or the rope isn’t completely severed.  But nylon ropes under tension can sever completely on relatively dull edges.  And it is possible that the rope could sever on the first bolt while the climber is higher on the route, though this is unlikely as the rope stretches more and absorbs more of the force of the fall, whereas low falls put a lot of force on the worn edge of the ‘biner and cause the failure.
When I went on hiatus from rock climbing a few years ago fixed draws were not common.  I knew of less than half a dozen routes that had fixed draws or other fixed gear and those were typically more difficult and excessively overhanging routes.  The first quickdraw on a route was different every time unless you intentionally used the same one each time you climbed, but the angles and patterns changed regardless because each route was different with different angles.
These days apparently the masses have grown even lazier than they used to be and convenience gear is becoming more and more the norm.  With this (at least) one disturbing result.
Compounding the sudden and stark danger of fixed draws is the sheer number of gym noobs that are bungling around in the woods looking for bolts to clip.  It was bad in the late Nineties and early Aughts.  I remember giving impromptu anchor cleaning clinics more often than I sent routes.  It seemed then that every time you turned around you were bailing someone out of a predicament that they had no business being in.  Climbers were partly to blame for being too egotistical and impatient to take on apprentices as had been done in Ye Olden Dayes and urban climbing gyms were feeding constant streams of fresh new and na├»ve bodies to be beaten and broken against the rocks of the Red River Gorge.
I know that sounds dramatic, but I witnessed an insane number of instances where strong climber did utterly stupid things that could have killed themselves and the people around them because they didn’t have good sense and experience in the outdoors or with real world climbing situations.
Counterintuitive maybe, but this could be a safer place than the sport crag
These days there are ravening hordes of gym climbers who can’t even find their way to trailheads and approach trails with smartphone apps.  I know, because I’ve been giving directions to crags I’ve never been to all this past summer and fall as we worked on mountain bike trails in the PMRP.  It blows my mind.
The simple solution to the fixed gear dilemma would be for climbers to stop being lazy.  Hang your own draws.  If you can’t climb the route without fixed gear then maybe you need to go back to the gym and hit the campus board until next weekend and try it again.  I used to fuss at dainty sport climbers who complained about “heavy” quickdraws.  “Do some freakin’ pullups!” I’d holler.
What used to be the norm was a cleaning ‘biner low on the route that would keep you from swinging wildly away from the wall as you tried to retrieve your own gear off the route.  I blame some of my friends from high school who would boulder up and steal those ‘biners.  But that system worked as long as everyone understood what those pieces of fixed gear were for and how they were to be used. 
Which takes us back to my first point about what the problems are in rock climbing today: no one mentors new climbers.  Gyms learn ‘em how to be dangerous and turn ‘em loose on the world and other, wiser climbers shy away because they’re afraid of getting blood on their shoes.
I realize a lot of gyms and advocacy organizations have learned and they try to offer gym to outdoor transition classes.  But I think the damage has been done, and I think too many people either ignore those classes or the classes aren’t comprehensive or intense enough to convey the crucial thinking skills needed to survive as a rock climber.
I learned to climb through books and magazines.  Because it was all I had I would consume the monthly climbing magazines and any books about climbing I could get my hands on.  It was a scary trial and error process that left me very well rounded and very well capable of identifying and avoiding precarious situations. 
Our new Millennial-minded culture doesn’t have time to consume a magazine cover to cover or even read directions from the guidebook to get to a trailhead or crag, much less a whole book on mountaineering or on a specialized skill like anchor building.  What creates even more problems is that sport climbing is not regarded as the same kind of discipline as trad climbing or mountaineering and therefore less emphasis is put on ropework and self-rescue.  Those skills would better train young rock climbers’ awareness of potentially dangerous situations.
Maybe I’m not the guy that should be saying all this.  This past winter I got a whole new trad rack after nearly ten years of not being a “climber.”  I feel like I’ll be the gumby on the wall come spring when I go out trying to scratch and claw my way up some easy and moderate routes.
My rack was old five years ago.
Vedauwoo 2010

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