My Thick Skull (and drink recipe)

Here I’d been thinking that I had nothing to write. And then I fell on my face and head. Yes, leave it to me to make the safest climbing possible – overhanging sport climbing – as dangerous as possible. Was at Wizard’s Gate, with my friends Quinn and Wes, was feeling good – all of us were climbing well. Anyway, I jumped on a hard (for us) sport route, and at the steepest part I pitched off, and my body was fairly horizontal but I think my foot stayed on the hold just a little longer, thus launching me into a back flip, and somehow along the way the rope spun me and I swung back into the wall head-first. Smashed my head and face, blood dripping into space, gnarly. Fortunately my neck is fine and I didn’t fracture my skull.

Really, I felt fine. I lowered, Wes put a sweatshirt on my head and we walked out, freaking people out on the trail, and thought about just going to the bar – fuck it. But we went to the ER first, good thing – 13 staples in my head and 14 stitches in my face and mouth. Just what I need – I got uglier.

I was not wearing a helmet. I’d been getting complacent when cragging on good rock – stupid, yes. But maybe not? I have no problem attributing blame to myself, for sure, but overhanging sport climbing without a helmet, on good rock, must be the single safest form of climbing. I’ll bet the “if you’d have worn a helmet” thing is, maybe, what? one in 10,000 with this scenario? Seriously, just stay inside. No, for real, stay on the couch and watch TV. Nothing will hurt you there. Then again, had I broken my skull or neck (though the helmet wouldn’t have likely prevented a neck injury anyway), that one case would’ve been catastrophic. Makes me shudder to think about. Just like if my rope would have cut and killed me – also extremely rare – I’d have wished I’d been climbing on double 11mm ropes. I don’t want to be defensive, but I also hate how anytime there’s an accident, every douchebag in the universe tries to jump to one single thing that would magically be the panacea for all evils, accidents, and tragedies in the universe (and such reactions often seem suspiciously close to the shallow self-justification of “Well, you wouldn’t catch me don’t that” – yes, you’re right, we wouldn’t, because you were inside on the couch). It’s weird, like, sure, a helmet would’ve helped some. I almost surely wouldn’t have the staples in my head (the least of my worries…), but would probably still have the gnarled-up face. So, IF I had worn a helmet, it’d have helped. Yet IF I didn’t have such a thick skull – who’d have thought it’d such an advantage? – I’d have been fucked. Better: IF I’d have been a better climber I wouldn’t have fallen. I’ve got more to say about all this, and I might ramble-on about it later.

For now, I will say that, in thinking about why I don’t always wear a helmet (aside from the bigger picture of thinking about times where it’s really not needed – like, almost always on overhanging sport climbs), a lot of it comes down to comfort. Wearing a helmet sport climbing feels cumbersome, as would climbing with double 11mm ropes. A new, wussy modern phenomenon? Ha! Get a clue. Half the old-schoolers never wore helmets even in the alpine because they weighed more than three days’ food. We base a lot of things on comfort. We don’t want to make things such a hassle that it removes some of the aesthetic feeling we love from these activities, even things like sport climbing (oh no, am I about to lose my alpine merit badge by saying this?). That’s why the dudes spouting “You always [insert helmet or whatever the 'rule']….” are poseurs, and they always have been, and they always will be, because anybody who’s been around knows that “you always” doesn’t exist. Situations vary.

My new helmet: Trango Skull Cap.

So, here’s my pitch for super light, low-bulk helmets. Because you’re more likely to wear them. I have a Petzl Meteor 2, but it’s significantly bulkier than their original one, and I don’t wear it that often. Pathetic of me, I know. I also know of zero people who’ve had head injuries from leading sport routes without a helmet. So forgive me. And, still, it damned near happened to me. Allow my dumb ass to provide the example: If it’s light enough, and low-bulk enough, maybe I’ll wear it. Just for those outlier instances – like last Tuesday. I’m glad it wasn’t worse, I’m glad I’m not drooling on myself, and I’m glad to get back out there doing what I love. Thank you, Malcolm Daly – a longtime pal and badass climber, who works at Trango – for the helmet. It weighs nothing and it’s super low-bulk. I’m hoping it’ll help keep me going, loving life, for as long as I can do it. Thank you, too, more immediately, to Wes and Quinn for taking such good care of me last Tuesday.

The QuinnWes Shake:

Wes and Quinn at Wizard's Gate.

After I splatted, Quinn and Wes not only remained cool and careful, ensuring I was safe on the way out, but they also hung with me in the hospital and then at home – they made the below spiked milkshakes and even stayed the night, just to be sure I didn’t have a closed head injury that’d show later (highly improbable, but the doc said it wasn’t a bad idea to have someone stay with me just to be sure). A few times throughout the night, Wes even got up and came to check on me. Thank you. I’m grateful for my friends. I wasn’t allowed to eat solid foods at first, due to the cuts inside my lip. So, the margarita and milkshake diet – doctor’s orders.

Now it’s Monday. Margarita Monday at the Cordes cabin. But for the rest of the un-acclimatized margarita world, perhaps something a little softer might be good – you know, ease into the work week. Softer can be good, like when you bust your face and head open. Thus:

Shake #1:

Bailey’s Irish Crème liquor (creamy, beige…)

Strawberries

Bananas

Vanilla ice cream

A little water (or more Bailey’s)

Shake #2:

Same stuff as above, add or subtract what you will. Instead of Bailey’s, use Disaronno (an Italian amaretto liquor)

Mash it up in the blender. It’s a delicious, refreshing, summertime drink. Drink. Get up the next day and do what you love. Think about whether or not to wear a helmet.

Laziness

My god was I lazy yesterday. And all week. Never one to rest on my laurels, today I pushed it and went even lazier. Perhaps even challenging The Dude himself in the running for laziest man worldwide. Today I fell asleep mid-day with Motörhead blasting in my headphones. Now that’s lazy. Or maybe it indicates that I’m really really tired, from such a stressful week? Yeah…

Much like alpine climbers who stop wherever they feel like it and try to claim a completed route – the “modern ascent,” “new bail,” or proverbial “end of the difficulties” – I’m looking for a justification for my failure.

I came up with three possibilities:

1. I inexplicably ceased margarita consumption for the last several nights. Likely a record of some sort. It’s not even that I’m trying to cut back – after all, nobody likes a quitter – but I just haven’t felt like drinking. Weird, likely a shock to my system, but some things defy logic, like crop circles, curling as an Olympic sport, and Dolly Parton’s titties.

2. Did my biggest gimpy hike yet earlier this week – to Sky Pond and back, which is 9 or 10 miles round trip. My awesome PT, Jeff Giddings, had encouraged me to push myself a little and see how it felt. Everything I’d been doing had been feeling great, so leave it to me to then overdo it. Made good time on the way up (decent gimpy time, that is – I used to do personal trail-run time-trials there, damnit), but took twice as long coming out, and was hobbling pretty hard by the time I returned to the parking lot. It was a little much just yet. OK, now I know.

By the way, anybody notice that the farther you get from the trailhead, the cooler the people (usually)? It baffles me that people can be so rude in such a spectacular place. Must be an indication as to how unhappy they are, but I wish they wouldn’t be such dickheads. “Excuse me, comin’ thru!” with a big smile and a “How’s it goin’?” too often results in a scowl and an unwillingness to clear the trail. I’d think they’re just offended that a dorky gimp is passing them, except it used to also happen when I’d run the trails. I don’t get it. In the past, it used to so annoy me that I’ve come soooo close to lowering my shoulder into someone (the thought then makes me laugh, and I go back to enjoying myself), but I’m kinder and gentler now. It probably especially annoys me because I go to places like this to escape people like that. I know, I should feel sorry for them and rise above it. But I’m still not ruling out the shoulder check option. Namaste.

3. I sent my stupid little “proj” last weekend. This, in my temporary new life as a sport climber, perhaps justifies my subsequent laziness. At least I’m not as lazy as Josh Wharton (he might try to defend himself with “Ohhh, but I have a broken back and wrist,” but buck up dude!). Josh and Erinn, his wife, just moved to Estes and, more importantly, they got cable TV. I always did like them. This project of mine is a whopping 70 feet or so, probably easier than Scotty D and I think it is, and is one of three lines up by some crag we got lost trying to find and that we know absolutely nothing about. Don’t even know the names or ratings of the routes, just that this line was the hardest of the three (via its direct variation, anyway – there’s a JV way around the hard part). Neither of us could onsight it on our first few tries. Several days prior, I flailed again, Scotty sent, and then I broke off a key hold off, making it harder. So, I maintained, Scotty hadn’t really done it. Nor had Wharton. Thus, clearly, I needed to send.

Erinn and Josh, on their merry way to the crag (me: "I think it's this way...yeah, yeah, I've been here before, I swear").

Last weekend I called up Josh: “Hey dude, how’s the back? Yeahyeah, anyway, can you belay yet? No? Oh. Uhhh, say, what’s Erinn up to today?”

The long-suffering Miss Erinn had probably thought she got some respite from belay duty, what with Josh in the Stormtrooper suit, but hey, what are friends for? I’m classy like that. Here’s the damnedest thing: Erinn says she likes belaying. Finds it relaxing (every climber guy just said, in unison: Duuuuude, does Josh know how lucky he is?!). She’s an elementary school teacher, meaning she deals with chaos all day every day, and so she says it’s peaceful to simply be in a beautiful place with her husband (or her husband’s deadbeat friend…so I hope), enjoying the surroundings. No shit. How cool. And somehow, I felt good climbing that day, too – maybe it rubbed off. Namaste.

**

That Motörhead video I linked to, up top, is so good I’m embedding it. Quite possibly the best ever metal song — or whatever genre you call it — fuck it, as Lemmy himself is known to say, “We are Motörhead. We play rock and roll.”

Snapping Slings (gear geek post)

This post is about safety. I know, WTF? (Boooorrring!) But there’s a first time for everything, and contrary to all indications otherwise, especially given my banter about Disaster Style, sometimes I try to be smart. It’s not always easy, what with my low IQ and all, but Disaster Style is all about living. By trying to be smart, and stacking the odds in our favor when doing such life-affirming things as climbing, it’s simple: we stick around long enough to keep doing it. Helluva deal. Along those lines, let’s get to it: slings. Excellent recent info from DMM (video here; article here), with test results from climbing slings, warrants examination.

The key with this sort of data, in my mind, is this: How does it apply to the real world? One could be forgiven for looking at a chart of numbers, and videos from industrial drop towers, and tuning out. I see two major factors from their tests, confirming what we already know:

* Elasticity – huge difference between nylon and Dyneema slings – as noted by the guy in the video (Graham “Streaky” Desroy, I’m told), a typical leader fall might only generate 4–7 kN. That’s with a climbing rope, which stretches to absorb and distribute impact. But even a very short fall with something more static can generate catastrophic impact forces. Dyneema stretches about as much as a steel chain. Nylon stretches more. This doesn’t mean to avoid Dyneema slings, as they’re great in many ways. It means be aware of the situation and application.

* Shock Loading – pretty much always a bad thing. It receives a lot of attention with anchors, with many considerations about the best setup regarding equalization and shock-loading (summary: trying to pre-equalize and tie-off an anchor rarely achieves true equalization, so if one piece fails, the others get a shock-load anyway; sliding-X type configurations are less likely to fail in the first place; bomber pieces are the most important in any anchor). Yet we shock-load gear when we take leader falls, and pieces rarely blow-out. Why? See above – elasticity of a climbing rope. Put this info together, and you see that static shock loading – like falling directly (no rope between) onto a sling equals disaster.

Note that DMM’s drops were done directly onto the slings – no climbing rope attached. The dynamic properties of a climbing rope save our asses. So, when would these tests apply? When you’re clipped-in directly to a piece of gear or your anchor, like using a sling as a daisy chain at belays (or simply using a daisy chain; the results here would seem to apply). For example, if you’re clipped-in with a 60cm sling (thus 30cm long, since it’s a loop), if it’s not taught, like you’re standing on a horizontal ledge, it could dip just 15cm (about 6 inches) down and back up to you, and so if you fall off the ledge you’re taking a factor-one fall onto a static piece — check out the forces. That’s a direct free-fall, but wow. Enough to break a piece of gear, possibly the sling, and your body. Yikes.

Take-home message: don’t clip-in directly with a Spectra or Dyneema sling and jump off the ledge. Duh. Sometimes, though, we might slip off the belay ledge, or climb above the anchor to mess with something above (like adjust the top piece of the anchor) and easily slip and shock-load.

For protection pieces? I don’t see this as any reason to ditch your low-bulk, lightweight Dyneema slings and draws, because you’re clipping the rope – the greatest shock-absorber in the system – into the sling/protection piece. I’ve long carried one or two nylon quick draws or runners on my rack, though, for the very purpose of minimizing impact force on a sketchy piece or my first piece off the belay (when your impact force from a fall would be much greater, due to less rope out). Seems a negligible contribution to rack weight, and maybe just a tiny bit of extra saftey. I figure I do enough stupid shit already, and so, when I can, I should stack the odds in my favor.

Interesting side note: In DMM’s drop tests, a knot in the Dyneema sling greatly weakened the sling, of course (we’ve all long known that the bends of knots make any material weaker than when straight/unknotted), and it snapped like a twig in the drop, breaking at about half the force of the unknotted sling. The nylon sling also recorded a lower force, but – but but but – the sling didn’t break. Huh? Yeah, it actually reduced impact force, without the sling breaking, in one of the tests. How? Most likely due to nylon’s elasticity allowing the knot to act as a shock absorber, dispersing the force, making it less of the sudden shock-loading, catastrophic jolt that snapped the Dyneema sling. Whew, the mind spins a bit.

It’s tempting to simplify, but I don’t think that these tests indicate any need to stop using lightweight gear, like Dyneema slings. Dyneema slings have superior abrasion resistance and, at least unknotted, are much stronger than nylon, and they absorb less water. Only idiots take a single piece of information (“that sling broke at XXkN!”) that’s part of a complex system and jump to a rash conclusion.

So, more take-home points? I’m no rocket surgeon, so don’t listen to me, but here’s what I figure:

* “Having slack in the system is bad news,” as Streaky says. Keep in mind that we’re particularly talking slack with a static system here – slings, particularly Dyneema slings. No rope incorporated. Clip-in with the climbing rope, and you’re fine.

* Don’t tie knots in Dyneema slings if they can be shock-loaded. They’re too static, it makes them snap. They’re fine at their regular length, though (so long as you don’t shock load them without a rope involved). What about Dyneema slings knotted for an anchor? I don’t know, good question. We’ve always known to avoid shock-loading anchors anyway, but this becomes especially pertinent.

* Shock loading something static is bad news (again). A very short fall can generate deadly force in a static system – just a couple of feet, like imagine you’re standing on a higher ledge, clipped-in directly to the anchor with a Dyneema sling, and your foot slips and you shock-load the anchor. Especially if you had a knot, maybe for length adjustment, in your Dyneema sling. See-ya! Even if you’re backed-up with the rope, the force you’d generate is likely enough to cause you internal injuries.

If I were to distill it all to a single useful point: if there is any risk at all of your shock-loading your piece or anchor, use the climbing rope – not a sling – to anchor yourself in. It’s usually simplest and fastest anyway. Reach the anchor and clip-in with the rope – usually a clove-hitch to the power point or a single bomber piece that’s connected to everything else (always thinking “what if this were to fail?”). Related point: when clipped-in directly to a bolt or piece of gear, only hang on it. If you’re going to boulder-up and work a move (shock-load risk), be sure you’re on the rope, not directly in with a sling or draw.

A crucial thought, along the lines of crucial general thinking: “What if this were to fail?” The associated question, of course, is “what is the likelihood of this failing?” If I’m at a hanging belay, and on hard terrain where a fall is more likely, I’ll be more vigilant with how I clip-in, and with backups. If I’m on an enormous ledge, one where a lighting strike wouldn’t knock me down the face, sometimes I won’t sweat being unroped (or I’ll at least allow myself a bunch of slack in my tie-in point). Just like how I don’t wear my seatbelt when I’m sitting on the couch, watching Cops every night.

OK, I’ve repeatedly repeated myself enough already. Use the gear correctly, with some thought, and you can go lighter safely – it all adds up, as grams become ounces become pounds. Just remember to think – problem solving is part of what we love about climbing. Going lighter means going faster, which means more climbing in a day, which means the day ends with time for margaritas. Really, it’s all about the margs.