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A Solo Climbing Experience

Author: Jim Krumpelman
Date: December 10, 2004
.....My weight missed the tree debris and returned to the ground without the standard havoc of wrapping around other branches. In pulling the ropes through the crotch of this ash tree, I noticed excessive friction. Otherwise it was an uneventful up-and-down climb. I mistook my efficiency as significant advancement in skill level. In pulling the equipment down, my homemade leather rope sleeve wouldn’t budge from the sharp angle of the crotch. The scout camping itinerary had priority, and the equipment was eventually abandoned in violation of the credo from Boy Scouts of America and tree climbers – Leave No Trace.

I weakly fashioned a promise that I would return and retrieve it. Several things began to motivate me to commit to a return: Wild Bill’s TCI posting on Leave No Trace, the December weather in Ohio was in the 50’s, and I had vacation. As I drove south from Columbus for a return to Hocking Hills, the familiar radio stations faded. The highway turned into a narrow two-lane road, which soon became one-and-a-half lanes wide. The last leg of the travel was on gravel parallel to where Little Pine Creek quietly resides. If there is a single moment where concept becomes consecrated as proven skill, it happens in the anonymity of a remote climb. There’s no bravado. It’s about accepting nature on its terms and navigating its taxing dimensions. There are no plaques or honors to be bestowed upon the challenger. Completion quietly acknowledges skill.

I arrived and began the process of setting a rope. My plan was to run a rope over the stuck crotch saver. Forty minutes later, I had to accept the only available lower branch. Again there was excessive friction. I ascended DRT and was now ten feet beneath the stuck equipment. During the ascent, I created a rule – I wouldn’t advance using my climbing rope as a throw line. The tight crotches of this ash tree were clinging to equipment like a black hole. The next ten feet were incredibly vexing, and I ended up using every piece of equipment attached to my harness minus the figure-8 and a small piece of 8mm cord. Because my webbing loops were too short at the first juncture, I alternated between SRT and DRT. I climbed with a 60’ nylon rope as my second for lanyard and SRT. The first SRT used the same entry crotch. I just needed an eighteen- inch boost to reach a section where false crotches could be created with the length of available webbing. The climb transitioned from confusing to slow, but progress was underway.

Who I was as a climber began to show in spurts of revelations. I discovered my impatience in transitioning through DRT, lanyard, and SRT, which was my biggest surprise. I understood that this was part of the game and had conceptually embraced it as a welcomed challenge. Other novelties surfaced. I wouldn’t trust the Sliding Bowline, but the Yosemite version had my complete confidence. At a point where all of my Prusik loops were engaged, I called upon the Klemheist knot with a webbing loop for the first time with height. It had my reverent focus until locked under my weight and quickly became a welcomed part of my commissioned tool set. Each knot and each transition carried a unique set of emotions. Like the delirious hiker in the desert seeing a mirage of water, I kept visualizing a white oak with its open crotches and poetically spaced branches. I anguished over the fact that I was in an ash on this climb. I eventually grabbed the rope saver and make an unceremonious descent. Any negativity of the struggle quickly vanished.

What were the lessons learned? There actually were too many to list here. I couldn’t have anticipated how seemingly insignificant elements could dramatically change the challenge level of a climb. Where the first climb was flawless, the same tree was incredibly arduous to climb three weeks later. However it has made the perfect solo climb in terms of presenting skill challenges. I have left that day with strong visualizations of what took place, and I’m flooded with numerous thoughts on what I would do to climb more efficiently. Nature handed me a test on its terms and specifically called upon a wide range of skills as an instructor would devise training scenarios. “Now your target crotch is unavailable. Consider your webbing loops useless as a false crotch. With your Prusik loops engaged elsewhere, make an advance without them. Since you’re balanced to the left, reach right and adjust your lanyard. Make a DRT-SRT transition and repeat.” If one notices, my narration here is void of romantic nature observations. This climb was as unromantic as a first date with a Waffle House waitress (so I could imagine). Nature had sat me down like a stern teacher and handed me a pop-quiz. I was rather occupied.

Though the objective was completed, I left humbled, yet I’m strongly inspired to seek the next climb. In this holiday season, I’m dreaming of a white oak. More importantly, I left with a commitment that if nature hands me a test beyond my skill set that I will definitively say no thank you. I’ll descend and return another day after I’ve practiced that scenario.

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