Tuesday, June 26, 2012

breaking the barrier

With more front range sport climbing under our belts, we decided it was time to transition into traditional climbing. Trad climbing, as it's called by rope guns and rock afficianados, is a style of climbing using natural features of the rock and temporarily-placed gear (called pro) for protection on a route. Trad routes usually exploit cracks, corners, dihedrals (concave corners of the cliff face), or other lines of weakness in the cliff face to gain protection opportunities. Pieces of gear such as nuts (chunks of metal slung with wires), chocks (hexagonal pieces of aluminum slung with rope or wires), and cams (spring loaded engineering wonders with four lobes that hold the harder you pull on them) are used along with horns, bulges and other rock features on which the rope can be naturally anchored. Even trees are fair game for rappelling down a route or setting up a belay anchor. The scary thing about trad climbing is that you have to know if your pro is placed correctly - if it's not, a high lead fall can dislodge gear, creating a zipper effect for a bigger fall, or even worse, pulling out the belay anchor. However, trad climbing can be viewed as a safer endeavor than sport climbing, because with sport, you are trusting your existence to hardware that someone else drilled into a wall who-knows-how-long ago.

However you view safety, trad is a scary endeavor. The knowledge you need to possess with knots, rope management, and anchor building (not to mention the thousands of dollars of gear you need) just to make it up a route is immense. Add to that the fact that you really don't ever want to fall on your gear placements, and you've got quite a mental game on your hands...the same hands that are chalked up, sweaty, and desperately jammed into cracks hundreds of feet above the ground. The best routes take place on multi-pitch climbs, routes that are taller than the length of the rope (usually one pitch is equal to 115 feet maximum). When the climb starts, the leader climbs above the rope, placing pieces of gear into the rock, protecting his fall. When he reaches an appropriate area for a belay station, usually some kind of a ledge or area where he can belay comfortably and begin the next pitch, he builds an anchor - a complex process using three different points of protections, with a rigging system of rope that equalizes the load on all three anchor points. The biggest thing about climbing is that all systems involve extreme redundancy - you want every single point of impact to be backed up so that if anything fails, you're still attached by one means or another. It might involve a big fall, a hard landing on an edge or an awkward hang in your harness, but it's better than plummeting to a big splat on the ground below. When all is said and done, a multi pitch climb can be anything from a two pitch, 150 foot scamper, to a 25 pitch, multiple-day affair.

Eric's birthday present to himself was a guided traditional climb, which we completed with the excellent help and flawless knowledge of our guide Mike Soucy from the Colorado Mountain Guides, based out of Boulder. Mike taught us the basics of placing gear in cracks, anchor building, and rope management from belay stations. After the initial technique session, it was time to put our skills to work on a three pitch classic route on Boulder Canyon's Cob Rock crag. The route, of the 5.8+ grade (you are always supposed to trad climb well under your sport abilities), put us up an awkward chimney on pitch one, an aesthetic hand crack and dihedral for pitch two, and a tough hand / fist jamming crack to top out the crag. We all sent the entire route clean, meaning no resting on the ropes, and got to practice belaying on the wall. I belayed our guide on pitches two and three, while Eric cleaned the placed gear on his way up. Cleaning a trad route can be awfully difficult, as some pieces of gear become hopelessly wedged into the cracks and pockets of the rock. A cleaning tool is used to dislodge nuts and chocks, while the trigger system of the cam pro is used to close the lobes to remove those pieces. The placement of a cam can become troublesome if the leader has smaller hands. He might be able to place the gear into a crack deeper than his cleaner, with fatter hands, can reach in to activate the triggers. All in a trad day's work.

The view from the top of the route was, of course, epic, and some tourists far below on the side of the canyon highway pulled off to snap photos of the climbers on the tower. It was a great experience that has opened up a whole new world of climbing to us, if only we can trust ourselves enough to place good pro and build solid anchors. Like the best trad rope guns say, crack kills. Better start taping our hands up for the big walls...

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