The Virtues of Self (rescue) Knowledge:
Looking back on my rock climbing career, it has become abundantly clear how my rescue background has influenced my climbing experience. I started doing both at the same time. In fact it was my volunteer days with the Southern Arizona Rescue Association that introduced me to my first climbing mentor, Jeff Mayhew.
My first day practicing going over the edge with a rescue litter ended with my first rock climb. I was 16. It was a small little 2 pitch 5.7 on Mt. Lemmon called “Slippery When Wet.” Somehow Jeff knew that the climbing thing would catch on with me, so rather than just taking me up the climb. He took the time to explain every aspect of what he was doing, including the physics of how camming devices work and proper anchor construction and rope management. I didn’t retain any of it.
The seed planted, however, and before I knew it, I had read all of John Long’s books in the How to series, and decided I was ready to go out and start learning the ropes.
My second climb ever was a lead of that same climb, with John Long’s book clipped onto the gear loop.
Around the same time, I went on my first rescue call-out. The mechanism of injury was a 60 foot ground fall… Climber. While threading the anchors at the top of a moderate sport climb, the patient’s belayer had taken him off belay. The climber leaned back, and well, he hit the ground. My first rescue definitely gave me a bigger adrenaline rush than my first climbs. I walked in with Jeff and we were the first on-scene. Jeff is a paramedic and generally a good guy to have in your company, so it didn’t matter that I was a complete shit-show and had completely forgotten all of my recently acquired medical training.
The injury was relatively minor. In medical terms it sounds like the standard format. Potential compound tib/fib fracture with deformity. What this actually looked like to my unacquainted eyes, however, was two obvious bones sticking out, with the whole foot completely rotated 180 degrees, obvious bleeding, and very loud screaming. It was fortunate that Jeff was a paramedic because morphine did wonders for the guy’s morale, I got my hands wet and helped package the leg, and we carried him out in a basket. Life went on, and I got my first lesson on what happens when you make a mistake in climbing.
Lesson number 2 came that same year with a body recovery on another climb, also on Mt. Lemmon. To this day, I can’t make sense of what happened. The guy fell on a very easy pitch after a much more difficult crux pitch that was 5 number grades harder.
Needless to say my introduction to climbing was not one firmly rooted in denial of the assumed risks. Somehow, these lessons did not dissuade me from assuming these risks.
In fact, it was actually the exact opposite. As I gained more and more rescue experience, situations that I had been fearful of previously started to take shape as perfectly reasonable risks.
I used to dread the crux pitches on the climbs in Cochise Stronghold. They scared the shit out of me. This was mostly due to the fact that I had a tendency to bite off a bit more than I could chew, but it also hinged around my lack of understanding on the various methods of bailing. I would build up this pressure in my mind that we were on this wall with only one rope, which in my mind meant we couldn’t descend the route, and that the only way off the wall was to send the route. But in my lack of experience I had perfectly justifiable cause for doubting my ability to pull the crux moves, and the Stronghold was notoriously runout. Often the fear generated by the hole in my technical competence would make the climb seem much harder than it actually was. We’d always get through, but often times, it was epic.
The guy that changed all that was Pat O’Herron. He was a talented climber, for sure, and he taught me a lot of skills that certainly helped me along the way. But the most valuable thing I ever learned from Pat was how to bail in good style. Once I realized that climbing hard free moves with a ton of exposure way up on a wall didn’t have to be a do or die scenario every time you tie in, I could sleep the night before a climb. Once I could sleep, I could also think the next day. My grip could relax on the wall. Climbing was no longer about dreading the crux. I heard myself saying things like, “Let’s go check it out. If it’s too hard, we can always bail and try again later.”
The same effect happened once I realized I could probably visualize a rescue of my climbing partner just about anywhere on a climb. It was no longer the typical “well I’m sure I could get us out of this…” Suddenly I knew how I would get myself and my partner out of a tight spot. Once again, anxiety levels went down. Climbing difficulty went up.
It’s tough to say if boldness went up or down. In perception, I’d say that boldness went down due to the fact that everything started to seem more reasonable. In reality, the climbs we started doing got much more serious, despite the more casual feel.
I’m not a very talented climber by any means, but I do think that the growth of my technical knowledge has allowed me to climb closer to my potential, and have more fun along the way.
Thank you for reading this blog,
Technical Rescue Instruction Project, Inc.