There are 3 types of climbers. Some people can climb 5.10 on their 1st day out with little notice of exposure or heights. They trust the rope and guide completely with little explanation. Other’s overcome their trepidation with just the right amount of gentle coaching. Yet there are those who will have a very hard time trusting the rope and systems that keep us safe. Their fear induced tunnel vision keeps them from looking around for foot holds, or trusting their shoes on the rock. Every few years I am reminded that what comes naturally to some can be very difficult for others. This past Saturday I took my friend Marty out climbing, and discovered he certainly fell into the latter category.
Marty is an avid hiker and mountain biker. He had told me he had issues with climbing. He had taken both rock and ice climbing lessons from some of the most senior climbing guides in the valley years before. When I asked him what made him nervous about climbing he said it was trusting the gear. So we started the day at “the classroom”, a ledge outcropping at the top of Cathedral Ledge with an excellent view. After a quick review of the equipment to see how strong it is we made our way down the trail to the top of the Barber Wall. My plan was to do a rappel before we started the actual climb to help instill some confidence in the rope and gear. Adding some apprehension to the situation was the insecurity of the leaf ridden ledges. You could not safety approach the rappel anchor given the slickness of the ground. An unroped slip on the downed leaves could end in tragic consequences, so I did a hasty rappel to the anchor, then belayed Marty down to me.
After some instruction Marty leaned back and followed me down the rappel. Despite some noticeable tension he handled this pretty well.
We continued along the approach ledge carefully short-roping until we arrived at the bottom of Upper Refuse.
After a review of the belay system I started up the familiar terrain. I’ve climbed this route over 100 times and despite my familiarity with it I remember what it was like my first time. The awkward wet move at the bottom, the tendency to want to stay in the corner despite the best holds that are out closer to the exposed edge, the key protection placement to keep a second from swinging if they fall. I talk a lot while teaching climbing, trying to describe the process of locating holds, using them, and staying relaxed. After about 5 minutes I reach the anchor and connect, then call down “off belay”.
Marty makes short work of the first awkward move off the ground and I think this will go pretty well. Just a minute later he is standing on the ledge near the arete drying his shoes. From here Marty “implodes” as he later described it. The biggest indicator of the change in demeanor is what I’ve decided to label “spontaneous Tourettes”. Marty, generally a well spoken, always positive kind of guy started letting out some comical tirades of profanity directed at himself, and his inability to relax and look for holds. I could see by his body position he did not trust his feet, and his white knuckle grip showed he did not trust the rope either.
One thing about climbing people sometimes forget is we have choices. We don’t always have to summit. Blindly pushing on when their are obvious (and sometimes not so obvious) signs that things are not going as hoped has caused countless tragedies. Some major, some as minor as ruining the climbing experience for the person being introduced to the sport. When Marty arrived at the belay we started a conversation.
I don’t like to make all the decisions when guiding. If it is a life or death situation I’ll certainly make the call if need be. But more often than not these decisions can be made in a democratic kind of way. Climbing is a team sport, even if it is just the two of you. Everyone should have a voice. I let Marty know how much was left of the climb, and that we had an option to descend from here. Rappelling seemed like the lesser of two evils by a slight margin in his mind, so we decided to retreat.
Two rappels later we were at the base of the cliff. Later over a couple beers we talked about the primal instincts that take over when you feel threatened or out of your element. Relived to be done with the situation Marty agreed to go again with me next summer. A low-angled slab route on a sunny day comes to mind. While I’ve met a few people over the last 7 years of guiding who fall into this third category, none of them have willingly decided they want to go out and flirt with their fear again with me until Marty.