Rock climber -- John Black|
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Have you ever been caught in a downpour? I imagine that would make everything slippery and dangerous -- is that true?
Asked by Emily Kelly
I certainly have, Emily! More than once in fact!
Any responsible outdoor adventurer checks the weather forecast before setting out. If you're caught in a major storm and are unprepared (without raingear, a way to rappel off or otherwise escape your situation), you may need a rescue. You can be charged with negligence and fined! This has happened many times. Often you simply cannot climb in the rain and you have to sit and wait. In rare cases a cold spring rain has killed unprepared climbers.
However, in many mountain ranges you'll often see mild and brief afternoon thunderstorms which only last an hour or so. They're usually not well-predicted and these are the types of downpours I've been caught in. Typically they happen in summer when the weather is warm enough that you just wait it out -- sometimes miserably -- then wait 30 minutes for the rock to dry off to continue your climb.
I've also climbed in the rain before on purpose! Sometimes you just want to climb so badly nothing can stop you. So one time three of us did about 10 different climbs during a heavy downpour at Pinnacles National Monument. We stayed away from friction climbs because when rock is wet there's almost NO friction left! And of course, we climbed routes way below our level of ability. Through the whole experience we knew we were crazy, but we were so glad to be climbing, we just didn't care.
What sort of injuries do rock climbers tend to get?
Asked by Brenda Thomas
Thanks for the question, Brenda. There are two types of injuries typical for climbers -- chronic overuse injuries and traumatic injuries.
The chronic injuries tend to be in the elbows and fingers because these joints take a lot of punishment, especially with all the steep climbing on small holds found in modern climbing gyms. A common elbow injury is lateral epicondylitis, often called tennis elbow. Prevention for these injuries is just what you'd expect -- use tape to support the joint, take adequate rest days between climbing days, eat right, stay hydrated, and stretch and warm-up properly before climbing.
The traumatic injuries from climbing can be just about anything because these injuries usually result from falls. There's a saying in climbing that "it's not the fall that kills you, it's the landing." Falls are fine and safe as long as you stop before you hit something! But unfortunately, sometimes climbers land on a ledge or the ground and end up quite hurt. The worst injuries occur when you land on your head or your trunk (where all those vital organs are). But the most common climbing injuries are to the legs -- sprained and broken ankles are common and most climbers have accepted this risk as a part of climbing.
Have you ever done a climb that nobody else has ever done?
Asked by Kristin Stevenson
Yes Kristin, in fact I have!
When you do a climb which no one has done before, it's called a "first ascent". If you do a first ascent, then you get all kinds of honors. You give the climb its initial rating (which may be adjusted later on by the consensus of other climbers), you get to name the climb, you decide where the permanent protection points go (called bolts), and you get your name in the guidebook!
People have thought of some beautiful route names -- like "Wall of the Early Morning Light." Frequently they're puns or jokes like "Science Friction" or "Fingerlocks or a Cedar Box." There's a beautiful and popular route in Joshua Tree, California called "Figures on a Landscape." Right next to it two climbers did another route and in an obvious parody named it "Boogers on a Lampshade."
What's a protection point?
Asked by William Woods
That's a good question William, and brings up what's probably the most often misunderstood term in climbing. A lot of non-climbers think the term free climbing means climbing without a rope. This isn't what this term means! Climbing without a rope is called free soloing. Free climbing is climbing with a rope, but the rope is used only to save the climber in case of a fall.
When the rope is used to protect you from falls it must obviously be attached to something! The way it works is roughly as follows -- the first climber ascends the route inserting special pieces of gear and then clips the rope to this gear. The gear is firmly attached to the rock (hopefully), and if the climber falls the rope catches them. The climber continues doing this until reaching the end of that segment of the climb. Then the partner who was on the ground belaying the first climber -- meaning holding the rope in case of a fall -- climbs the same segment and takes out the gear which the first climber placed. Of course now the first climber is belaying the second.
In this scenario the first climber is called the leader. They take on the greater risk because a fall could result in a long drop if the leader climbs high beyond the last piece of protection. Once the leader finishes and puts in an anchor point, the second climber (called the follower) is belayed from above. The follower has no risk of a long fall because as soon as they climb up six inches, the leader takes in all the slack.
This is a hard thing to visualize and I didn't understand it the first time I heard it described to me. If you get into climbing you will learn this soon enough, and you certainly won't be the leader until you become very experienced.
In one of your answers you talk about types of climbs, can you describe them? And how many different types of climbs are there?
Asked by Grant Harrelson
Well Grant, types of climbs are named after the techniques used to climb them. Climbing has its own lingo which sounds very strange until you get used to it. You might hear a climber say "Dude, I was fully gripped on that runout and the number two friend below me was so manky, I thought I might crater." Translated this means "Friend, I was really scared when climbing far above my protection points because the nearest protection was a size two spring-loaded camming device which wasn't very reliable. I was worried a fall might allow me to hit the ground."
The types of climbs divide naturally into two halves -- cracks and face. For cracks you get these types of climbs.
Finger cracks -- So small only your fingers go in
There are finer classifications within these broad categories. A knee-back chimney is about three feet wide and you climb it with your knees on one wall and your back against the other. A foot-back chimney is about six feet wide. If a chimney is too wide it becomes impossible to climb, of course.
What size crack would you guess is the hardest to climb? The answer, for most people, is about 1.25 inches which is too small for a hand but too wide for fingers.
For face climbing, there are all different types of climbs:
Friction -- You smear your shoe on the holds (the climb has to be less than vertical), often called slab climbing
Liebacking is a face-climbing technique for cracks, done when you find a crack in a corner. You pull with your hands and push with your feet, walking up the vertical wall!
How do you keep your balance when you can't put your entire foot down?
Asked by Pauline Vandermeer
Well Pauline, sometimes I don't!
Balance comes with practice just like everything else. And usually on the climbs that I do, you don't get much of your foot down unless you're standing on a ledge. Remember though, often you have two footholds and two handholds to work with, so even if you have poor balance, your hands are holding you in place as well.
Sometimes climbers will practice going up a steep slab (80 degrees) with no hands. This develops balance and is good footwork practice. I've never worked much on my balance, but I've noticed that it's gotten markedly better just as a result of climbing so much!
Are routes marked out for climbers? How do you know what level of difficulty of climbs to do?
Asked by Louise Logie
Louise, the most popular areas almost always have "guidebooks" which describe the climbs in detail. There's a standard way to draw a climb on paper indicating things like cracks, ridges, protection points, ledges, and so on. The books also give difficulty ratings for the climbs and sometimes even rate the quality! Without these books doing climbs would be MUCH harder, though not impossible.
There are usually two different ways I choose a climb. Either I find something in the guidebook which has the type of climb I'm looking for (fingercrack, lieback, chimney, friction, or whatever), the length I want, and a difficulty level I can manage.
Or I choose a climb just by seeing a cliff somewhere and wondering what kinds of climbs are on it. In this case I see the climb first and then look it up in the guidebook to see if it's within my abilities.
Have you ever decided not to do a climb because of fear or conditions?
Asked by Alex MacDougall
Sure Alex, it's happened a lot!
Conditions play a major role -- you can show up to do a climb and find it's running with water! Or you want to do a long, all-day climb but it looks like it's going to storm, so you decide not to. Climbing requires constant judgment of conditions.
I've also backed off of routes because of fear. Usually this happens after starting on a climb then realizing there's a long section with no protection from falls. You have to decide whether to "go for it" or not.
A few times we've set out to do a climb, but found the thing looked so scary we both immediately changed our minds. Have you ever seen "Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail"? There's a scene where the characters charge the fortress, but then turn and yell "Run away!" as they retreat. My friends and I do this too. Sometimes when we see a climb that's intimidating we look at each other and yell "Run away!" then turn and run back down the trail away from the climb.
What was doing rescue work in Yosemite like?
Asked by Kim Borroughs
Well Kim, like anything there were good parts and bad parts. Officially we were considered volunteers, so we only got paid when there was a rescue. During slow periods we didn't work and we didn't get paid! Instead we went climbing.
We carried pagers with us. When an emergency arose they paged us and we'd all come running. We would have to do everything from carry-outs (carrying an injured hiker down a steep trail), to body recoveries, to high-angle rescues from the face of El Capitan, to three-day searches for a lost teenager in the back country.
In one of your answers, you talk about hammocks and portaledges. Do you actually spend the entire night hanging off a cliff sleeping? Isn't that a strange sensation? How dangerous is it?
Asked by Becky Hollins
Well Becky, when a climb takes too long, my climbing partner and I spend the entire night somewhere on the cliff. The best option is a nice big ledge on the cliff. A lot of the older climbs have these, but many of the newer steeper climbs have few if any ledges at all. So in these cases, we spend the entire night hanging out on a portaledge.
The first time I ever spent a night on a climb was after only eight months of climbing. I was with a more experienced climber. After we had climbed all day, we reached the spot where we were going to spend the night. My immediate reaction was "Oh my GAWD!" You see, the ledge was narrower than my shoulders and leaned away from the rock toward the open void below. Plus it looked like only one person could possibly fit there. My partner's reply was "No complaining, John."
Well, spend the night we did. And in fact I got the larger portion of the ledge! But I had to tie slings around my waist and knees to keep from sliding off. My partner was in a really awkward position -- he kept sticking his feet in my face, which after climbing all day in tight shoes wasn't very pleasant.
Somehow, he managed to sleep, but I slept little if any -- I was nervous about being there in addition to being very cold and uncomfortable.
Now a portaledge is a deluxe suite at the Hilton compared to that ledge! It's flat, spacious, and luxurious! The disadvantage is that it weighs about 10 pounds and costs about $400.
Sleeping on a cliff isn't dangerous at all. You sleep in your harness while tied to the anchor just like during the climb. If you roll off the ledge during the night, you fall only to the end of your tether (and in my case, it's a short tether). It's a rude and startling awakening, but not really dangerous.
Rock climbing looks fun, but I have no idea where to begin. What do you need and how do you get started?
Asked by Megan Hall
This is a question a lot of people ask me, Megan. And a few years ago, I would have told them to go find an experienced climber to show them "the ropes." But these days, there's a climbing gym in just about every major city, and a few in not-so-major cities as well!
So the first thing I'd suggest for those of you who are interested in trying climbing is to open the phone book and look for a climbing gym. If you don't find anything, call the local outdoors shop (even if it's a ski shop) and ask them where the nearest gym is. Also, find out if there are any local outdoor clubs which do rock climbing. You'll soon be on your way!
Have you ever considered rock climbing as a career? What sort of opportunities are there in this area?
Asked by Jordan de Vries
In fact I have, Jordan, but it's a pretty hard thing to do. A lot of people would like to have a career rock climbing! Imagine, you get to climb all the time, travel, spend time outdoors, get free gear, and the list goes on. But there are disadvantages too -- it's very competitive. I'm not as good a climber as many others who can afford to work for much less. Also, these jobs tend not to pay that well, probably because of the competition! And finally, I wonder if climbing for a living might turn something fun into something monotonous. I wouldn't want that!
I suppose the opportunities for professional climbers are these:
Working in a climbing store (salesman, not much climbing) Working in a climbing gym (stuck indoors though) Guiding for a mountain guiding company (very competitive) Working for a mountain search and rescue unit
I've done this last one for a season in Yosemite. It's also very competitive and you don't even get paid unless there's a rescue! So it's a dirt-poor living.
The best pro climbers in the world just climb all the time and have sponsors pay for everything. But this works only for the best 50-100 climbers in the world, and even they're often living on a shoestring.
A last alternative I've heard of is working for Disneyland! I hear they pay climbers to ascend an easy route on the Matterhorn ride in their amusement park. I think it pays minimum wage and would probably bore you to tears after a few weeks, but hey, you're getting paid to climb!
What kinds of exercise should I be doing to get in shape for rock climbing?
Asked by Elizabeth Nichol
Thanks for the question, Elizabeth.
Often people think that if they want to start climbing, they need to start doing sets of pull-ups from the edge of their doorway. Not only does that get your parents mad when the door frame breaks, but it also ends up getting a lot of people injured. The tendons in our fingers and elbows take a lot longer to strengthen than our muscles do. So for climbers just starting out, I recommend climbing no more than once a week and spending the rest of the week doing general conditioning.
The best things to do to prepare your body for climbing are things like these:
Running, cycling, or aerobics to get rid of body fat Moderate weight-lifting with light weights, emphasizing the pulling muscles and the upper body Eating sensibly, avoiding junk food, getting adequate carbohydrates and protein Sleeping at least seven to eight hours per night and getting rest after hard workouts
It's important to emphasize that trying to copy the workouts of really good climbers at the gym will only get you hurt. Start out with the above, and then gradually increase the amount of climbing you do. And the most important training rule of all: if it's not fun, then stop and do something different!
Is ice climbing similar to rock climbing? Have you ever tried it? What was it like?
Asked by Glen Harris
Boy, Glen, I wish I could answer your question, but unfortunately I've never tried ice climbing. I'll tell you what I know about it -- you use specialized tools on your hands and feet. The things on your hands are called "ice tools" and the things on your feet are "crampons." You ascend by sticking these pointy little devils into steep shafts of frozen water and climbing up!
Protection from falls is done in a manner similar to rock climbing: you insert protection devices (called "ice screws") into the ice, and then clip the rope. The dangers are similar to those found on rock -- protection may not always be good, ice fall (like rock fall) is a major hazard, and the quality of the ice is very, very important.
I guess there are a few reasons I've never gotten into this sport. You pretty much need perfect conditions -- you always hear ice climbers waiting around for a climb to freeze into the right kind of ice to be good for climbing. I like climbing on warm sunny rocks with my shirt off. I've already spent too much money on gear and I don't want to buy a bunch more for yet another sport! But probably the biggest reason that I haven't tried it is that I live in a fairly warm and sunny area of the world where these climbs are hard to find.
Is there anywhere you haven't rock climbed, but would like to?
Asked by Jeff Pringle
What a great question, Jeff. And I'll bet you can guess the answer: Yes!
One of the great things about climbing is that you can never do all the climbs -- there are just too many. If I climbed every day from now until I die, I probably couldn't even do all the routes in California! In Yosemite alone there are over 5,000 climbs and there are probably 10 times that number in the state.
The list of places I'd like to go is endless, and I'll probably never get to a lot of them, but I'll tell you a few.
Bugaboos -- Banff National Park
I'd also love to climb the Squamish Chief in Squamish, British Columbia. It's a beautiful area where Canadian Peter Croft got his start. Croft, now a resident of Yosemite, is in my eyes the best climber in the world.
Where do you do the most rock climbing -- indoor gyms or outside?
Asked by Frances Moreau
Boy, Frances, I tell you I would love to climb outside all the time. That's why I got into climbing in the first place!
But as you would guess, things like driving distance, time commitment and weather all keep me from climbing outdoors as much as I'd like. For the winter when the days are short and the sun is hiding, I'm forced to climb indoors just to "get my fix."
Other folks actually prefer to climb indoors, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, there are people who have climbed for years, climb harder than I do, and have never climbed outside. They like the gym, and that's all they ever want to do.
The nice thing about climbing is that it doesn't have a lot of rules about what's right and wrong -- you climb in whatever way makes you happy as long as you don't damage the environment or ruin the freedom of others.
What's the hardest thing to do in rock climbing?
Asked by Janice Threnton
That's a good question, Janice, and it really depends on the person.
Some people are scared of heights so much that they get really dizzy looking down. They get so messed up they can't climb and have to choose another sport!
For other people, the hardest thing is finding a climbing partner, or finding a good place to climb, or affording the equipment.
For me, I'd say that finding enough time to climb is my biggest problem -- I wish I could climb all the time!
What is the highest cliff you have climbed? What's the longest cliff you have climbed?
Asked by Tom Spangler
Well, Tom, that really depends on what constitutes a "cliff." I've climbed Mt. Whitney at 14,495 feet elevation and the climbing was fairly easy and not very steep. But being that high does have an effect! It's harder to breathe up there -- you really start to notice it when you're doing something athletic. To give you some perspective, Himalayan climbers on Mt. Everest start their climbing higher than this and then climb to 29,000 feet. Most of them use bottled oxygen to keep them going.
The longest climb I've done would probably be about 2,000 to 2,500 feet in Yosemite. These climbs can take a long time or can go very quickly, depending on the difficulty and the abilities of the climbing team. I've done a climb this distance in an hour and a second one of the same distance in three days.
The second one was a much harder climb, so we moved slowly and had to sleep on ledges part way up. Sometimes you do a climb and there are no ledges, so you have to bring a hammock or something called a "portaledge" to sleep on. In the old days, the really tough climbers would just hang from a piton all night, shivering and praying for the sun to come up. I'm not that tough -- the portaledge is worth the extra 10 pounds of weight.
Does rock climbing require a lot of upper body strength?
Asked by Jody Wilson
Many people think rock climbing requires you to be able to benchpress three times your bodyweight and do 100 pull-ups with a 50-pound dumbbell hanging from your waist. This is simply not true. For most climbing done by recreational climbers, balance, flexibility, technique, and lower body strength are at least as important. If the cliff you're climbing is vertical or less than vertical, using your legs and proper efficient technique can overcome just about every obstacle you encounter.
I can do about 15 pull-ups, but I know several women who can climb harder than I can but who can't do a single pull-up. They're just better in the other categories I listed.
What was your scariest moment rock climbing?
Asked by Thomas Jossen
Fortunately, I haven't had too many moments that were scary, but there have been a few.
I guess the worst was in 1993 when I was climbing the South Face of Washington Column in Yosemite National Park. This climb takes most teams two days to complete: you climb up to the halfway point, sleep on a big ledge, and then finish the climb on the following day.
One bad thing about this climb is that the last 100 feet to the canyon rim has a lot of loose boulders -- this can be dangerous to climbers lower on the rock if you accidentally knock something off while finishing the climb. In fact, about eight years ago a team knocked off a bowling-ball sized rock while finishing this climb late at night and killed a climber below who was sleeping on the ledge.
Well, when I did this climb, my partner and I waited until no one was ahead of us because we knew about those loose rocks near the top. But during the very early morning hours on the second day, another pair passed us while we were still eating breakfast. We decided to continue with the climb in spite of this. About four hours later we were tied to the middle of a blank vertical granite face with nowhere to hide when we heard the unmistakable low hum of falling rocks. The sound grew louder, there was nothing to do but wait.
The rocks exploded and shattered all around us. One missed us by only a three feet or so. We screamed, we prayed. Fortunately, the only injury suffered was a gash on my partner's hand. But we were lucky.
Rockfall's are one of the biggest dangers of climbing -- especially these days when more and more people are climbing and frequently another team is above you, perhaps being a little careless where they step.
How much does the equipment for rock climbing cost?
Asked by Tim Hather
I'm familiar only with the prices in California. I'll give you a rough idea.
To start out, you need very little: shoes, a harness, and maybe a chalk bag. All of these items can be rented as well, if you're really tight for cash.
Shoes are special-purpose and fairly expensive -- expect to pay anywhere from $80 for a pair of cheap on-sale shoes to $200 for custom-made models. The average is about $130. Some people climb in tennis shoes, but this is really difficult and should be avoided if possible: these shoes just don't perform like climbing shoes.
A harness can be made for $5 of webbing, but it will be uncomfortable. A good all-around harness is about $40, and the flashy fashion jobs run as much as $80 or so.
Chalk bags are about $20.
Once you have these items, you're ready to climb. However, you shouldn't climb more than five feet off the ground, because you don't have a rope to protect you! (By the way, climbing near the ground is called "bouldering" and is great fun -- you climb sideways instead of up, so that falls aren't dangerous. It's every bit as challenging as vertical climbing.)
At this point, you would be climbing at a rock gym where this is all the equipment you need, or with a more experienced climber who would have his or her own rope and gear. Once you became more experienced, you might want to purchase your own rope ($100 to $250), and start accumulating other types of gear. A collection of gear is called a "rack." My rack has about 40 pieces of gear and cost me about $2500 in total.
Do your hands hurt a lot?
Asked by Eleanor Meehan
Hands take a lot of punishment while climbing. There are two types of hand injury that are typical.
The first injury is just what you'd expect -- you scrape up your hands. Rock is abrasive, and sometimes if you're a little too careless, your hands get cut by a sharp piece of rock. Down in Hueco Tanks, Texas, the most common climbing injury is the "flapper." This is when a flap of skin is torn by a sharp rock. The toughest climbers down there use SuperGlue to reattach their flappers, but I don't know if I'd ever do that.
The other common hand injury is finger tendinitis. Just as with any sport, if you do it too often and don't take adequate rest breaks, your body will give out. Since climbing tends to place a large amount of stress on your finger joints, you have to progress gradually and allow ample recovery times between climbing days.
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