Doug Bruns

Taking a whipper.

In Adventure, Memoir on July 10, 2012 at 6:00 am

On route.

The use of the word extreme as an adjective for sport is something I’m unsure about. “Extreme sports” seems more a marketing ploy than anything. We know the type of activity implied: those sports with an inherently higher risk than other sports. White-water kayaking is more dangerous than softball–as is alpine mountaineering, rock climbing and so forth.

I used to participate in an extreme sport. I guess that would make me an extreme participant. I was a rock climber.

I miss climbing. Recently, I walked into the new Eastern Mountain Sports store in town and turned immediately to the corner where the climbing gear is displayed. I fondled the ropes, squeezed a cam. Then I felt a gentle pull at my arm. Carole was pulling me away, saving me from myself.

I quit climbing after taking a nasty whipper. “Whipper” is the euphemism climbers use for a fall that scares the shit out them. Climbers don’t like to think in terms of being scared so we use a word like whipper. It makes you smile rather than scream.

My climbing partner Michael and I were climbing a slab of rock in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Michael was the better climber and was leading, which means he was above me and moving up, placing “pro” as he climbed. Pro is short for protection. Climbers keep a rack of pro slung over the shoulder on a piece of webbing, pro being cams and wedges and other devices to insert into a crack or wedge between rocks. A carabiner is then attached to the pro and the rope is clipped in. The climber advances until he (or she) places the next piece of pro. Sometimes a climber might move ten feet or more beyond the last piece of pro before placing another. Each advance above the last piece of pro is an advance in risk. If you fall ten feet above the last piece of pro, you drop twenty feet, the ten feet above the pro and the ten feet of rope length below the pro. The physics of this creates a lot of energy and if the pro isn’t well placed the force of the fall will pull it out, possibly yanking out the piece below that. The fear is that each piece (of pro) will pull out like a zipper opening. That is not good and something worth worrying about.

Michael had advanced the length of rope and using pro set an anchor on the rock face. My task was to follow his climb, removing the gear as I climbed. This is called “cleaning the route.” We were using double ropes because the rock was sharp and we wanted the extra security. When I fell it must have looked particularly scary because a picnicker in the field two-hundred feet below screamed. I recall looking down as I fell and thinking that their car looked like a toy, it was so small.

A fall for the following climber is not nearly so dangerous as a fall for the leader. I could only fall as far as the peice of pro above me. My worry was the anchor Michael had placed. Would it hold? He was a careful climber, but sometimes not as careful as I liked. When I fell I swung like a pendulum. This was the result of climbing a crack that angled the rock face, rather than a crack that went directly up and down.

The problem with a pendulum fall is that you fall below and away from the pro. Getting back to the route requires swinging back and forth, running the face of the rock sideways, until you can get a finger-hold. This tests the anchor and causes a lot of rope abrasion. The rock was sharp. You get the picture.

It took a long, tension-filled, time to get back on the route, and I could feel the eyes of the spectators in the field below. Mostly I remember thinking: What the hell am I doing up here? 

Eventually I got a hold, composed myself, and cleaned the route, meeting Michael at the anchor. The fall was not so bad as falls go, but bad enough for me to contemplate my place in the universe. Not long after I walked away from the sport.

I miss it a great deal and have more trouble accepting the loss of climbing than the loss of a lot of other things in my life.

  1. As the wife of said climber, I am very grateful that this “phase” as my family likes to call Doug’s interests, is long past. It continues to be difficult for me to understand the “pull” of such a dangerous activity but that is just one of the mysteries of my wonderful husband.

  2. Doug,
    I forwarded this one to Sterling & Sarah who will enjoy it.

    I like the way you quickly convey the physical description of the scene as well as the intensity of the emotions in this piece.


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