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A Grand Weekend Of Climbing

Author: David (Hunabku) Obi
Date: November 12, 2007
The A.O.R.E conference was indeed a success. I regretfully was not able to make it for the pre-conference climbing workshop. I have yet to attend a program type climb and would like to have gotten a glimpse at what facilitating is all about.

The trip began on Friday morning. We left the Maher farm before daylight and after an hour or so we decided to stop in Franklin, N.C. to have a bite to eat. Breakfast was good but to my surprise the restaurant we chose had decided to secretly replace the ham on the buffet with fried bologna. Not that I have any thing against bologna, but when you are expecting a bite of delicious ham it can seem almost like a dirty trick. I filled myself with the mystery meat regardless.

Joe and I arrived in Asheville and walked around the conference center to see what all was going on. Most of the attendees were in sessions when we arrived. There were huge circus-style tents set up and a number of vendors had displays promoting their products and services. It was fun to see all the latest outdoor gear. Once the sessions let out and the conference attendees started to fill the tent Joe and I went to check out the room in which we would be doing our presentation. Everything looked good so we set off in search of some grub and a tree to climb.

Joe led me to the Vivian forest on the University of North Carolina/Asheville campus. It was the place where he had done his program climb on Wednesday. It was a beautiful day and the air was almost a bit too chilly for a Florida boy like me. We walked into the woods to visit a pine tree. I know Joe has good taste in trees but I was having trouble understanding why we were passing up so many awesome trees. We passed right by a number of beautiful red and white oaks. I wanted to climb them all. “Dude, have you ever heard the story about the old bull and the young bull”? I nodded that I had and continued to follow him along the slightly hilly trail.

When we arrived at the pine I was glad I had waited. It was like no other pine tree I had ever seen. The tree was a good three to four feet in diameter but what really set it apart from other pines was its limb structure. At about 15’ off the ground a pair of opposing branches, each a good two feet thick, reached out horizontally for a good ten feet. The branches then turned skyward and branched into leaders that continued up to nearly the top of the 100’+ tree. This weird branching happened again about half way up the tree. Along with the many vertical trunks that were formed by this weird branching, there were plenty of “normal” branches spaced all the way to the top. This allowed Joe and I to climb all the way to the top on opposite sides of the tree. Nearing the top, Joe had to make some pretty interesting contortions to get into position sitting on a branch with a view of the surrounding hillsides. It looked like the tree was putting him into a figure-four leg lock. I couldn’t help but break out into laughter. I was close enough to help if he needed it, but far away enough to avoid being swung at for teasing him.

During the course of the climb we were noticed by several people walking through the park. Most would look at us for a minute and then go on their way. One woman asked if we were doing something, or just having fun. “Just having fun” Joe replied. Later, on the ground a young woman walking her dog said “Have a nice climb”. We told her that we were all finished up. She smiled and continued to enjoy the day, much as we were. I was intrigued by the nonchalant attitude that people seemed to have about our activity. Having not ever been seen climbing by many people, due to the remote nature of my normal climbing, I expected a different reaction. I think most people are more open to the idea of RTC than we are sometimes lead ourselves to believe. We packed our gear and walked to see the trees that Joe had used for his program climb, at my request.

The next day was quite exciting. At the A.O.R.E conference Joe and I met our room monitor, Elizabeth, and prepared the room for the presentation. I hooked up the laptop to the projector and finished up the brief power point I would be using during my portion of the presentation. Meanwhile Joe arranged the chairs and laid out some climbing gear on a table in front of the room. People started filling the room and soon the chairs were full and people were sitting on the floor and standing at the back of the room. It was great to see so many faces filled with interest in the activity that I have grown to love so much. I teach classes at an electrical apprenticeship training center but this would be my first time speaking about tree climbing. I was feeling slightly nervous.

The time for our session to begin had arrived. Joe introduced himself, Beth and Daryl from Georgia College and State University, and then me. He began the presentation with a slide show explaining what technical/recreational tree climbing is all about. He began by explaining the wide range in age and physical abilities of participants. He explained the differences in equipment between tree climbing and other vertical activities. He then went on to give an explanation of the different climbing systems that are involved. After that he showed some of the gear involved including a rope and saddle, and entry equipment like throw line, throw weights, and a Side Winder slingshot. Then he gave an opportunity for people to ask some questions. As might be expected, the first question was “Can we go outside and fire the slingshot”. A lot of other questions were asked and I could tell by the response that these folks were genuinely interested.

Beth from GCSU took the floor next. She explained how GCSU had adopted tree climbing into its outdoor recreation program and gave a compelling account about how well-received the activity has been. A slide show of photos showing lots of smiling climbers ran in the background. She also talked about the team building aspects and other experiential initiatives that are possible during a group climb. Every one helps each other, from putting on saddles to helping place settings. She also answered several questions that came from the directors of other outdoor programs.

Now it was my turn. I talked about climbing on the personal / individual level. I gave a little background on how I found the sport. Being from board-flat Florida, tree climbing gave me an easy way to connect with nature combined with the excitement and challenge of a vertical environment. I stressed the fact that there are a lot more opportunities for tree climbing than rock climbing or caving. Good trees can be found almost anywhere you go. Not as many places have cliffs or caves. Another point I mentioned is that tree climbing can be practiced solo. You do not necessarily have to have a climbing partner or belay to go out and enjoy the sport. I finished up by giving my accounts of how well tree climbing meshes with other outdoor activities. Hike, bike, or paddle to the trees that you climb. It’s up to you. Once we were done a lot of people lingered around asking questions and exchanging information. I could tell we did well and we got a lot of thanks from the attendees.

We didn’t stick around the conference for much longer. Breakfast was wearing off and Joe had been pumping me up about a tree he called “Barney” all weekend. I was ready to go visit Barney. We ate lunch on the road and soon Joe was directing me to pull off onto a gravel forest service road. It was a truly beautiful day so I pulled to the side of the road and removed the front two panels from my Jeep’s hardtop. Now we could clearly see the wonderful autumn colors that filled the canopy as we cruised along through the Nantahala National Forest. Joe pointed out a pull-off that lead to what he claimed was honestly titled “Rogue Ridge” He said “We’ll get to that later, but first we need to visit Barney”. As we climbed higher through the crimson and amber covered mountainscape Joe unfolded the serendipitous moment when Barney was discovered. “I walked a short distance into the woods to relieve myself, and as I stood there I noticed a rather large trunk standing back into the woods”.

About that time we pulled up to a parking area at the end of the road, deep in the forest. It was at the convergence of several trails. One of which was marked with the famous 2” by 6” white blazes of the Appalachian Trail. I daydreamed for a split second about dropping my entire life and walking off towards either Springer Mountain or Katahdin. But life was too good to just drop at the moment, so I decided to go see Barney instead. There were other vehicles in the parking area, and a few hunters standing around holding rifles, too. I have all respect for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. I also believe that I deserve the same respect and access to these lands as anyone else. In my mind it would be nice to have some public land that nothing is removed from though. Nothing, animal, mineral, or vegetable removed. Isn’t that “nature”?

Joe and I put on our packs. As I pulled his out of the Jeep, I noticed that his pack was quite a bit heavier than mine. Hmm. We headed off down a trail, and since I figured that he didn’t walk very far to “relieve” himself my eyes were steadily scanning the woods for something that stood out. I saw it. It had to be Barney. Joe had repeatedly mentioned to me that Barney was not the biggest tree in the forest, but that what Barney lacked in size it made up for with character. Joe nodded in a way that said “You spotted it”. We only had to walk about fifty yards off the trail to be standing under Barney. Barney is a red oak. Just yesterday Joe had explained the difference between a red and white oak to me. A red oak has similar shaped leaves as a white oak, but the lobes are pointy instead of rounded. I could now look up into the canopy of the truly magnificent tree and tell that it was of the red variety.

We both climbed using very different approaches to getting to where we wanted to be in the tree. I hand threw. Joe launched a line. I tied directly to my harness attachment. Joe hooked in on a yo-yo rig. Although I was the first one off the ground, by the time I had made the pitches necessary to get to the upper reaches of the tree, Joe was already there. During my challenging multi-pitch ascent I had a near emergency. As I pulled my rope over a stout branch I knocked some of the trees flaky bark loose and a rather large chunk fell directly into my mouth. I had become very congested during my visit and in return had my mouth hanging wide open so I could breathe. The bark lodged itself into my throat. This brought on a bout of coughing and hacking that continued for several minutes. Joe could tell something serious was going on and he asked if I was OK. I nodded yes as I continued to struggle to clear my throat. I guess my body had enough because with a single contraction I evacuated the contents of my stomach and cleared the bark from my throat. I forgot to yell headache! After that my climb continued as if nothing had ever happened. It was a clear day and we had an amazing view of the peak of Standing Indian Mountain. Joe had a better view on his side of the tree. We used a little teamwork to get me a setting placed close to him so I could traverse over and enjoy it too. We then decided to descend and head back to Rogue Ridge to check out the trees Joe had scouted on his earlier trip.

There were no other vehicles at the small clearing at the trailhead at Rogue Ridge. This indicated to us that the area would likely be safe to hike through. If there was a vehicle the owner was probably hunting in the area. Packs on back we walked out the ridge. The trail was overgrown and I gladly let Joe lead the way through the tangle of vines and dried brush. We had hardly walked out onto the ridge when Joe pointed out a nice oak. It was a red oak and for some reason he had his mind set on a white oak. We walked on. Not much further there was a white oak and Joe decided that this would be his tree. I was in the mood to get better acquainted with the red variety. Barney was the first red oak that I had climbed and I wanted to spend more time in one.

Joe’s tree was smallish and mostly exposed. Still he didn’t feel like having to work his way to the top. He preferred to go up quick and spend more time enjoying the view. I walked the short distance down the ridge to get a better look at the red oak I had decided to climb. It looked like a lot of work. I wanted an easy climb too. I walked back up to Joe and requested the use of his Side Winder slingshot after he had made a setting. “No problem,” Joe replied. On his first attempt at placing a setting his throw line became tangled in the tree. He was going to have to use the other end of his throw line and try again. The urge to get climbing was too much for me to bear so I decided I would abandon the slingshot and hand throw my way up again. It was a pretty tough climb but it felt good to keep my skills fresh. Once at the top of the tree I could see Joe perched in the top of the white oak. The view we enjoyed was about as beautiful a scene as is imaginable. Mountain peaks and ridges surrounded us for a near 360 degree panoramic outlook. I drifted off, completely forgetting about all of the never-ending details that clutter my existence.

We eventually traded trees. Partly to be able to see if the other had a better view, partly because I wanted to get my hands on Joe’s Poison Ivy rope. It felt very nice. I think I might have to choose it when the need for a new rope arises. After a short period we called out to each other, expressing our interest in calling it a day. We packed up our stuff and walked back to the Jeep. On the way back down the single lane gravel road, as we slowly rounded a sharp turn Joe shouted “Whoa”. I saw a truck speeding up the hill so I came to a complete stop. The truck didn’t appear to be slowing down. I braced for impact. When the truck was about 50 feet from me the driver finally noticed me and slammed on his brakes. It was too late. The full size pickup slid on the gravel surface as if it was wearing ice skates. I watched in horror as the truck slid right into the front of my brand new Jeep Rubicon Unlimited, seemingly in slow motion. Crunch!

I hopped out to assess the damage. My fender was ripped of and the right front corner of the bumper was destroyed. Oh well; my day had been too perfect, and my life was going too well to let this get me upset. Being in the middle of nowhere as we were, I decided it could take hours for a law enforcement official to show up and access the situation. We exchanged information and the driver of the truck assured me that he would notify his insurance company Monday to tell them what had happened. He also told me that if they decided not to cover my damages, that he would pay for it. He proved to be a man of his word. I received a call from his insurance company Monday and they opened a claim.

Continuing down the mountain I was on edge. We made it to the hard road without further incident. It was a couple more hours of driving to get back to the Maher farm. We decide to bee-line it back. Exhausted upon our return we ate a simple dinner of corned beef hash and peas over bread. It went down surprisingly well with a rum and coke. Joe’s brother, Bill, returned during dinner and told us about his day trapping and tagging birds. He was helping out with a research project the Georgia Department of Natural resources was performing. Thoughts soon turned to sleep. Jeff Newman-aka Swamp Fox- would be over at 7:30am and the four of us planned to go for a climb before I had to turn my sights south.

That morning Bill fixed up a perfect breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits, toast, and coffee. It hit the spot. Jeff showed up right on time and after throwing our backpacks into the back of his Jeep Cherokee we drove a short distance to War Hill Park. The park was situated on the banks of Lake Lanier. Deep in the grips of a severe drought the Lake was obviously much lower than normal. A long fishing pier stuck out into the lake, coming to an end far from the point that the water had receded to. A string of buoys lay in the sand marking out a large swimming area. By the weeds growing in the lake’s bed I could tell that it had been quite a while since any swimming had taken place. A sign warned of the steep drop off that occurred beyond the swimming area. The drop off was in plain view and the water’s edge was still quite a distance further down the bank.

We unloaded our packs from the back of Jeff’s Jeep and as we donned them I heard a loud “Whack”. The tailgate of the SUV had been slammed down, yet stopped short of closing when it struck Joe’s head. I knew it had to hurt, but Joe just shrugged it off. We didn’t notice any bleeding at the time so we headed of on foot towards our destination. I was told that we would be climbing on Luke Lanier’s island. I was also told that Luke Lanier was the son of Sidney Lanier, the poet for whom the lake bears its name. Fabricated history is no stranger in this crowd and after I had accepted the interesting facts it was explained to me that although a guy named Luke used to inhabit the island, he was in no way related to Sidney. Whatever, lets go climbing.

Due to the low water levels in the lake, Luke’s island was now a peninsula. We walked across the dry lake bed to the once lake-locked land mass. I would guess we walked a good mile and a half. Our route took us along the shore and through the former island interior. We came out on the other side of the island and followed the shore around “Naked Bottom Cove” eventually heading back into the woods again. I was told that we were now on what they called “Sweet Gum Point”. There were indeed sweet gums on the point along with oaks, pines, hickories, and poplars. The tallest tree was a sweet gum they called “sweetie” I think the name came not only from the trees species, but from the sweet view that it provided. Jeff and Bill prepared to climb Sweetie. Joe set his sights on a beautiful hickory tree. I chose a tree that I wasn’t familiar with. It would have a good view though. I could tell by the way its top was brightly lit, being exposed to the early morning sun.

The tree I chose had all of the signs of being a gear-eater. Its deeply furrowed bark was flaked up and fissured into a shaggy shield that was sure to snag a throw line. It had beautiful pinnately compounded leaves that were turned to a golden glow. An unidentifiable vine ran up the trunk. I couldn’t see the leaves to tell if it was poison Ivy.

I hand threw to the main crotch of the tree and to my surprise the throw line smoothly paid out of the laundry basket it was flaked into. I set my rope and tied one end off to the trunk of the tree using the controversial combination of a half hitch above a timber hitch. I’m not an instructor and don’t intend to impress upon anyone that this is the best way to anchor your climbing line, but I trust it and it’s what I usually decide to use. I had about a forty-foot setting and I climbed to that point on a yo-yo (RAD) setup. I have found that once you get this set up tuned for your leg length that it is just about as fast and efficient as anything else out there. Once at that setting I threw to a higher one and to my surprise. I didn’t get hung up in the long curling strips of bark that covered the tree. I tied a DRT setup and single foot locked up to my next setting.

At this point both ends of my rope were occupied. One end was tied to the trunk, having served as the anchor for my entry pitch. The other end was tied in a Blake’s hitch as part of my traditional DRT climbing system. I used the middle of my rope to tie a third rope lanyard. Once I had successfully thrown for a higher setting I transferred my weight to the third rope lanyard, removed my DRT setting, and advanced the end of my rope higher into the tree. The process was repeated two more times to get me all the way to the top of the tree. By this time Swamp Fox was down from climbing Sweetie and I shouted down to see if he wanted to join me. He did. I dropped down my throw line, and it being too short, tied it to my rope to be able to lower it all the way to the ground. This was used for me to hoist Jeff’s rope up and anchor it too the tree using a figure eight on a bight and a screw link. I signaled for him to untie my rope from the trunk. Soon he was joining me in to top of the tree. He identified it to me as a shagbark hickory.

We traded places in the tree and I slowly descended on my DRT setup. Soon Jeff was back down too and we joined back up with Joe and Bill. Joe had me go look up the tree he was climbing and I saw that it was covered in Poison Ivy. The vine on the shagbark turned out to be a Virginia creeper. Joe said he didn’t realize the Ivy was there until he was up in there with it, so he decided to just go ahead and climb past it. I noticed something in his hair. Joe’s white-as-snow hair was caked with blood. Apparently he had taken a much harder blow to the head than he had allowed us to believe. His blood had also ran across his scalp and streaked across his forehead. He said he didn’t realize it was that bad either. He figured he must have rubbed it while up in the tree and opened the wound back up to allow it to bleed some more. He said he felt fine. I admired his toughness. All back together again we began our hike off of Luke Lanier’s Island and back to the Jeep. As I walked along the sandy rock strewn shore I reflected on the wonderful events than had happened over the course of the last few days and couldn’t help but feel a little sad that it nearly all over. But life moves forward and so must I.

Back at the Maher farm Joe had the pouted look of a little boy on his face as his brother and Jeff played doctor to the wound on his head. They soaked his hair in warm water and revealed a nice sized cut on the top of his skull. It wasn’t so big as to require sutures so they applied antibiotic ointment and that was that. Good byes were exchanged and I was soon on my way back to Florida. I would normally feel a little down at times like this because I enjoy the company of these fellows so much. But I knew we would be meeting again in just two weeks FDR state park for more good times, and more stories to be told.

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