I know you’re thinking, didn’t take long for Kelly’s blog to go downhill (followed by: I hope he posts pictures).
Well, someone recently asked me, “Is it better to bring doubles and triples of everything, or try to get used to running it out and climbing with a lighter rack?” It’s a loaded question, impossible to answer because so many variables exist. A few things to consider, though…
A big part of it depends on your end goals. If you’re psyched to crag forever, and weight and bulk aren’t issues, sure, bring it all. Keep it safe – placing lots of gear is safe, and top-roping even safer. If you want to push your boundaries and expand your options for adventure, and embrace routes that pose psychological as well as physical challenges, or if you aspire to alpine routes, then indeed you’ll need to learn to handle runouts. But how? It’s really no different from any form of training – through progressive overload. Get yourself used to it gradually.
Be smart, though; don’t get hurt. If you know you need a blue TCU to keep you from decking at the crux, you’d be a fool to intentionally leave it behind. But often times you don’t know what gear you’ll need. And weight matters in the mountains, and you’ll never get up anything – and it’ll suck carrying everything – if you’re bogged down with the kitchen sink. But what if I don’t have the blue and I need it?
You’ll never have everything you think you need. And so you deal with it, or you go down.
I’ve done both, plenty. The most profound examples I can remember were on my two
Pakistan trips with Josh Wharton. On our new route, the Azeem Ridge, on Great Trango Tower in 2004, we started up the 7,400-vertical-foot route with a pretty basic rack. We knew the lower parts would be moderate, but up high was a mystery. Also, we dropped a quarter of the rack on the second pitch (my lead, but it was Josh’s fault, I swear…). Anyway, several times on the route we simply had to run it out. Fortunately, Josh drew the hardest leads – and often, as luck had it, he didn’t have the right gear. What to do? He punched it. Before you say, “That’s sketchy,” remember that it’s all relative. On his cruxes, I’d have been sketchy. He was solid. We all run it out in life – for some it’s on class-four terrain, for others it’s 5.11 in the Karakoram.
Two years later, a couple hundred vertical feet from the summit of Shingu Charpa, after three days and 45 pitches, we retreated from “easy” ice slopes – we hadn’t brought proper ice gear (it was the same gear we got away with on the upper parts of Great Trango), and we deemed it too dangerous. Live by the sword, die by the sword… It’s a dark art, figuring out when to punch it and when to bail.
So, some thoughts I’ve developed, many of which I still struggle with, as climbing can be scary:
1. Improve your climbing skills. Drop the “I’m a trad hardman” attitude or whatever, and realize that bouldering and sport climbing help with technique and strength. This improves your confidence when you most need it. Just don’t get too accustomed to clipping a bolt every few feet. Mix it up.
2. Be realistic with your fears. Do you really need to place four pieces of solid gear within a two-foot span, when the pieces below are also good, and the fall would be clean? Wean yourself off of the unnecessary. Realism with fear requires you to balance consequences of a fall with likelihood of a fall. This relates to your skills and confidence. Yes, I know, anybody can fall anytime. We take risks every time we go out. It’s a dance of probabilities. If you don’t accept this, you should stay home.
3. When you go long stretches between gear, make sure your gear is good. I’ll often place a couple of pieces, a mini-anchor, when I know it’ll be a long time until my next gear (you’re stopped anyway, and placing two – or three – pieces at the same stance is faster than two pieces placed at separate stances). This allows me to climb with more confidence, which means I climb better, which means I’m less likely to fall.
4. Teach yourself to be OK with safe falls. When sport climbing, or even when rock climbing above solid gear with a clean fall, occasionally jump off. What? Yeah, jump off. (Unless you’re wearing crampons, which can catch on things and break your legs.)
5. Learn to trust your gear and, if it’s safe, try until you fall. For people used to trad, ice, and alpine, this can be hard – I’m often a total wuss at this (too often just giving up, downclimbing to a piece and hanging), but am working on it, and trying until I fall has greatly improved my climbing. Get used to the good gear catching and holding you. Learn to use it well.
- When a fall is clean. In the gym, unless they’ll yank your membership, if you’re on the wildly overhung wall it might be fine to skip a clip now and then. You get used to just climbing without the security blanket of the self-top-rope inherent to many gym and sport routes. And if you fall? So what – nothing but air.
- When you’re certain you won’t fall. But still, don’t be a fool – most accidents seem to happen on easy terrain, when we drop our guard and get complacent. Keep in the back of your head: “If I slip here, or if rockfall beans me, what happens? Is it time to place pro?”
- When you have no choice. That’s when you’ll be grateful for all of your training, and your strong head.
If you climb enough, and certainly if you climb in the mountains, you’ll someday face a situation where you don’t have the needed pro, it’s a dangerous or even lethal fall, and then what are you going to do? It’s easy for the climbing-instructor-guy in all of us, the one who sits there with his bullshit “told you so” attitude after every accident, to say: “You go down.” Oh yeah? What if you can’t reverse the moves or can’t lower off? (That does happen in real-world situations.) Or what if, quite simply, you want to go up more than you want to go down?
Then, you do what Josh did on day four of our route on Great Trango, 7,000 feet off the deck and without the gear he needed: you remember that you’ve built up to this and that you have the skill, and so you take a deep breath, focus, and climb like you know how.
Either that or you go down.