Monday, March 23, 2009

R's Excellent Adventure - Day 1: Overcoming Challenges

Day 1: Rock Climbing
Prior to R's arrival, I had made arrangements with Joe from Pura Vida Adventures to take us out for the 'Southeastern Mountaineering' trip. This would be a full day of rock climbing, scrambling, fixed rope climbing and rappelling. We met Joe at his shop, loaded into his van and headed up to Cedar Rock.

After a short hike up the approach trail, Joe quickly established a top rope on a moderate face climb (rated ~5.7). R elected to go first. Joe and I gave him some instruction on knot tying and basic climbing commands. The command is 'On Belay?', but R never quite got the pronunciation right. At times it sounded like almost anything else but what it was supposed to be. Even he got a kick out of it.

He did pretty well on the sloping lower face of the climb. It took him a little while to begin to feel some confidence in the friction available from the climbing shoes. Admittedly, the shoes he borrowed from Joe were selected more for their fit than for the condition they were in. They needed to be re-soled. Nonetheless, Joe and I gave him some coaching as he made his way slowly to the ledge about half way up. Despite the protection offered by the rope and his climbing harness, he was still very afraid of falling.

He made the ledge and Joe (Joe is handling all of the belay tasks) let him take a break. The next section of the climb was much steeper, but had larger holds. If he was already outside his comfort zone, where was this section going to take him? Here's some of those difficulties coming to the surface.

Like a lot of kids, his mom (my sister) is very protective of him. As I understand it, his father is also extremely protective of him. This happened to me as a child, and I'm sure it happens to MANY kids. I won't claim to understand this, as I am not a woman and will never experience carrying a child in my womb, and I am not a parent so I don't understand the associated stresses. However, during the last three years (and even on earlier visits) I have spent doing these little vacations with R, I have seen the consequences of this protectiveness (and recall similar from my own childhood).

Long before our first trip to Easter Jeep Safari (2007), he had come to visit me at my home in Utah (he was still young - 5 or 6 years old). We took a little drive along the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway. This byway follows a very beautiful little river past Provo falls to some very scenic overlooks. We stopped to look at the falls and there is a lot of opportunity to climb on some easy rocks in that area (and not at the falls). I could tell he wanted to climb, but he was afraid to ask. As he looked at me, then glanced at the rocks I told him "go ahead and climb - just don't get hurt". He did some easy climbing that day (nothing more than about his head in height). I did begin to understand how a parent can become over-protective though.

Back on the flanks of Cedar Rock, here in the Pisgah National Forest he continued his climb. As a climber it is very important to have confidence in the protective systems you have established. One of the safest is the top-rope. For me to climb on a top rope is about equivalent to walking down the street - I consider it to be very safe. However, for the uninitiated it is still a very daunting task. R is among them.

As the climb became more difficult, he continued to have difficulty trusting his foot and hand placements. Joe and I continued to offer encouragement and coaching. We did our best trying to point out possible holds. At one point, R was stuck on a move so Joe used his jumar (being used as the belay device) and climbed up to the ledge just below R. From here, Joe could give some very accurate hand and foot placement advice. He could also provide an additional layer of psychological assistance - merely with his proximity.

Poor R. He tried very hard, but just couldn't make the move. Joe was pretty much holding him up through the belay, but he still did not trust the rope to keep him from falling. He was still in good spirits though as he made a few wisecracks. It was obvious he was feeling the effects of fatigue, so we decided to bring him down for a rest while I had a go. Here we ran into further difficulties.

As stated, R was having difficulties trusting the equipment while he was climbing, now it became critical to trust the equipment - he had to be lowered back to the ground. Despite having had him practice the proper lowering technique - body in a good 'L' shape, he was really having difficulty letting himself lean back into the harness. It was good that Joe was right up there with him. Joe was able to work things through with him and finally get him back to the ground.

After I had a go at the route, we had a quick bite to eat while Joe moved the rope to the next route. I took the first opportunity on this climb - also rated about 5.7. While I was climbing, I tried to point out some holds and some techniques. After I descended, R took a shot. He was a bit hesitant, but we managed to talk him up a little bit. He seemed to be gaining some confidence. We found differently when it was again time for him to be lowered.

This time, Joe was not right below him. We had to provide guidance from our location at the base of the climb. He was still very afraid of falling when he leaned back into the harness. After a number of near misses (as in he almost had the perfect 'L' position, but straightened out of it), he finally relaxed enough to find the position. We got him lowered to the ground and started packing up our gear.

Our next task was to ascend to the top of Cedar Rock by trail and by fixed rope. Joe led the way and would set the rope. He would re-join us at the bottom of the fixed rope, and I would ascend. We would bring R up second with Joe acting as spotter below and me providing guidance above. He seemed to have no issues with this method of climbing. Certainly the areas we climbed using fixed ropes were rated at 5.1 or 5.2, far less than the earlier 5.7s, but a fall is a fall.

We made the summit, and Joe snapped a couple of photos of us at the top. It was here again I gained further understanding of how a parent might feel. Many times, I wanted to react to where he was positioning himself at the summit. The rocks we were moving across were wet and there was a cliff! However, I limited myself to a statement or two about watching his footing or 'watch yourself'. It would have been very easy to make statements like 'Be Careful' or 'Don't go there'. I have some trouble with these kind of statements.

My opinion of course - 'Be careful' and / or 'Don't go there' implies that he is not already careful or not aware of his situation. It gives him no opportunity to gain confidence in taking care of himself. Although it is usually said with all the concern and care of one being for another, I feel it is an attempt by the person making the statement to have some control over a situation in which they don't (have any control). I also believe it takes away from the confidence of the individual to whom it is being expressed by taking away his control.

Statements like 'Be aware of your footing' or 'watch yourself', could also be interpreted this way, but in this particular case, it sounds a little less like Mom, and a little more like "I know you are aware of this situation we are in, but as an equal (climbing partner) I want to warn you that the rocks are slippery". Does it make any difference to a 13 year old what the actual words are? Maybe not, but I feel it is important to let a kid feel like he has control over the choices he makes. This is how he will begin to feel real confidence and how he will be able to apply that confidence in overcoming those challenges he is certain to face as he grows to an adult.

As we made our descent, again using the fixed ropes, we finally arrived at a decision point. We could continue our descent on foot, or we could rappel down the face we had just been climbing. Knowing the difficulties R had when being lowered, we had questions about how he would feel on a rappel. Joe was very good at explaining what a rappel was, and I think the key word was 'control'.

The method Joe would use with R was to allow him to conduct the rappel just as any normal rappel, but Joe would have R on belay to 'catch' him in case of any trouble. There was also a secondary backup with the prussik safety device on the brake side of the rope. The tertiary backup system would be me at the base of the climb. In case of difficulty, I could apply tension to the rappel rope effecting a brake and stopping his descent. I think because R would be controlling his own descent, it gave him some confidence in making the attempt.

Joe got the ropes set, and I made my descent. Joe then coached R in getting set up for the rappel, and achieving the correct body position. He began his descent on a sloped section of rock. As he came into my view, he entered the steepest part of the descent. I called out some tips to him, and told him of the change in pitch. He handled it well and had no real difficulty getting past the steepest part.

Just below that steepest part is the ledge mentioned earlier. I had him back to the edge of that ledge and lean his butt out over the empty space below him. This while keeping his feet at the very edge. Once he had a slightly exaggerated L position, I had him hop off the edge and land on the face below it. He did it like an old pro. As I watched from the base of the rock, I wondered if this was the same kid who had so much trouble being lowered off this same rock just a short time before.


  1. THat is some pretty intense stuff for a kid of that age. Bravo.

  2. So cool! He did great! Funny - I feel the same way about my nieces but it's more about trying new things and keeping an open mind than about fear or trepidation. I always think if I had been interested in having kids they would have ended up way more willing to go for new things. But who knows really?

  3. Hopefully, he'll be able to translate this confidence in the equipment into his next climbing venture.


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