Team Virtus gets Fixed (Ropes that is) at the High Profile Adventure Camp
**NOTE** This write-up is presented to you as a collaborative effort; I (Casey) wrote this report, and Luke and Bob added their comments.
The original write-up is given in black text, Bob’s comments are presented to you in green, and Luke’s commentary is given in yellow.
Finally, after much waiting and anticipation, it was time to start learning about ropes and rappelling. After all, this was a major reason why we were here. We wanted to learn the basics of rappelling, Tyrolean traversing, zip lining, and any other rope skill you might encounter at a 24 or 48 hour adventurer race. Our lack of knowledge has prohibited us from doing certain races because of a rope or rappelling sections. We wanted to become proficient enough and comfortable enough with these skills so that we could enter these races at our discretion.
The day could only get better right? There’s no way this afternoon could go worse than the morning’s paddle on the Mississippi did (we’ll tell you about that in another post). Well, we hoped not, and we were praying that Team Virtus would have a better showing. Our plan to redeem ourselves involved overcoming any fears we had (some had more than others) and working hard to acquire the rope and rappelling skills that we so desperately wanted to learn. A good showing here and we would have a little momentum built up heading into tomorrow’s 8-hour adventure race. A bad showing and we might decide to enter the 4 hour race instead.
If you haven’t heard yet, earlier in the day we somehow managed to tip our canoe only 30 yards from the bank on the Mississippi. What was the rappelling equivalent to that debacle? …Refusal to go over the edge? … A 50 foot fall? …Wetting ones’ pants while on your way down? …death? I wasn’t sure, and I hoped that we wouldn’t soon be finding out. We were all excited and, to be perfectly honest, a little bit nervous as well.
Good or bad we were going to have our first chance to try out all of our new gear. We each had purchased all of the required gear for the camp including: a UIAA approved climbing harness (Black Diamond Alpine Bod Harness for Luke and Bob, and the Black Diamond Momentum Harness for me ), 3 locking carabiners (aka biners, pronounced “beaners”), 2-12” sewn slings, an ATC or a figure 8 Device, and 2-60” 8mm thick lengths of accessory cord. We now had the proper gear, but we still lacked the knowledge to properly use it. Hell, some of the gear we had never even seen before, we had no idea of how to use it or even what it might be used for. Although clueless, we were hoping to have a fun, safe, and informative afternoon.
We sat through a midday lecture given by Gerry Voelliger regarding proper techniques and safety protocol for what we would be doing all afternoon. Gerry opened the lecture with the following quote from Todd Skinner (a climbing legend): “Success on a mountain is not a matter of how much you know – it’s a matter of how much you are willing to learn.” As I pondered this quote for a few minutes I really took it to heart and instantly knew Team Virtus would have a successful afternoon because we were all willing to learn as much as we possibly could.
Gerry went through the various types of equipment, rope, and gear and then taught us about proper fitting and what everything was supposed to do if it was used properly. We learned the proper lingo and what to call out before starting, during, and when finished doing the various activities. He emphasized the importance of doubling the harness strap back through the buckle to properly secure it. He told us to have a teammate double check every time that the hip strap of your harness is above the hip bones (so if you become inverted you won’t fall out) and that you can only see one side of every buckle on your harness (ensuring that you doubled back each buckle).
One of the volunteers had painted part of her buckle red. When the strap was properly doubled back, you could not see any red. She said something like, “If you see red , then you’re dead.” I thought this was a good tip, but it also scared the hell out of me.
My harness was on so tight my balls fell asleep.
Some of the take-aways from his lecture that that we will never forget are as follows:
1) Double back the straps on every buckle of your harness (I just said this but it is that important).
2) A wet rope is a dangerous rope, due to less friction. Inspect the rope before you climb or rappel.
3) Only use a locking carabiner on rappels. TIP à once you lock the biner you should back it off a ¼ turn to prevent it from freezing up and becoming impossible to unlock.
4) Don’t EVER tie a rope into your belay loop (too much friction with nylon on nylon = heat), but carabiners can be clipped in.
5) Gear loops are not designer to hold bodyweight, do not clip into your gear loops, they are only designed to hold your gear.
6) Never let go of the rope when belaying, keep one hand on the rope at all times. This applies to rappelling as well (never let go with your brake hand).
7) When traversing or zip lining the gates of your two biners should be opposite and opposed in direction.
8) When ascending on a fixed rope with hand ascenders, always maintain 2 points of contact with the rope.
9) When going down a zip line never put a hand on the rope on the downhill side of your carabiner which is attached to the rope. This is a very good way to lose a finger. Tip à Make sure that you keep bare flesh (like your neck) from coming in contact with the rope while you are “zipping” down the line unless you want a wicked, hickey looking rope burn.
Just ask Bob about this. He got a nice little burn on his neck from the final zip line during the race. Or maybe it really was a hickey, and he just didn’t want to explain who gave it to him.
Yeah, that was some pretty painful stuff. I actually heard my neck burning before I felt it. Luckily there was enough cool stuff going on all around me that it was easy to forget about the pain.
10) Wear gloves, a good pair of leather gloves will protect your hands from burns, blisters, cuts, etc.
11) If you kick a rock loose you should yell out, “ROCK!” and if you hear “ROCK!” don’t ever look up or you can get the rock in the face instead of on top of your helmet.
12) Do not step on, straddle, or stand to the side of a weighted rope – EVER.
13) Protect the rope from sharp edges.
14) Do not use a knife near a loaded rope (Did he really have to tell us this one? I’m guessing some idiot was seriously injured or killed in the past by using a knife near a weighted rope or else Gerry wouldn’t have had to tell us this).
As Gerry finished his presentation I looked over at a very ashen faced Luke and could actually see little beads of sweat on his brow. We made eye contact and he gave me a little head nod and attempted a smile to show that he was game. I wasn’t all that nervous before but this put me a little on edge. What if one of use dies? I hoped it wouldn’t be me or my brother.
Yeah, man. I’m not gonna lie. I was seriously a little sick to my stomach. I’m not a big fan of heights, to put it mildly.
I’d never seen Luke that nervous before. He kept rubbing his head and looking around the room, as if he was trying to find a way out of there. I knew he’d push through it when the time came, but I also knew that it wasn’t going to help any if he knew we were nervous too. I decided to act confident, hoping the positive energy would carry over.
After the conclusion of the presentation we all purchased a set of climbing gloves on the spot from Active Endeavors (a sponsor of the race and adventure racing everywhere), who had a shop set up offering any of the gear that you may need during the camp. They even offered a nice discount to all camp participants. Gerry’s lecture had convinced us of the benefit of having a nice pair of climbing gloves (and by the end of the day we all agreed with him and were glad that we purchased our new gloves). We got all of our climbing gear on and were ready to head out into the field to put to use all that we had just learned. The group we were in was instructed to head over to the rappelling section first…GREAT!!!
This was the first ever rappel for Bob and Luke and something I haven’t done since I was in 8th grade, so we all were busy trying to pretend that we weren’t at all scared or concerned with what we were about to do. That’s right we all put on our game faces and buried any fear we might have had deep within our souls. We stood at the back of a slow moving line watching other people prepare to rappel and then slowly disappear over the edge. So far nobody died that we were aware of (or if they did, at least they did so quietly which we appreciated). A camp volunteer came to the end of the line a told us of another shorter, faster moving rappelling line. We quickly headed over to the other line and found two lines were running simultaneously which resulted in the line moving a little faster.
I think Casey is being kind here. I was not hiding how terrified I was. Once again, I was a little queasy, and I was thinking of ways I could bow out gracefully. Casey and Bob were both acting like they had done this a thousand times, and this only made me feel more uneasy.
I believe the hardest part of this whole process was waiting for your turn. If you could have just walked right up, clipped in, and rappelled it would have been so much easier. We waited and waited and then waited some more (or so it seemed). The problem with waiting was the time it gave you plenty of time to really think about and consider what you are about to do and you kept asking yourself the same question over and over again…why?
My answer was because it looks like fun, it’s safe (or else they wouldn’t allow us to do it, right?), we need to know how to rappel for future races, and if I back out now my teammates will never let me live it down. For a brief second I thought about feigning a sudden injury that would keep me from rappelling. Then I decided against it, I had to do this. With this unfaultable logic I waited in line watching other first timers anxiously go over the edge. Eventually, we found ourselves at the front of the line and Bob decided that he’d go first for our team. After several minutes of instruction Bob was properly checked (his harness straps were doubled back and the harness was over his hip bones) and he carefully inserted the rope into his brand new figure 8 with the knowledgeable volunteer observing him to ensure that it was properly done. Then, Bob slowly worked himself back towards the edge of the cliff.
The instructor told Bob how to position his brake hand and told him his other hand was just a guide; if he slipped it would do nothing to stop him. I chimed in, “that he could sure as hell try to stop himself with it.” The guy said it wasn’t possible. Then he told us about a guy last year who slipped and then grabbed the rope above him with both hands (letting go with his brake hand) who had a nice little fall until the belayer stopped him with a fireman’s stop from below. Note to self – don’t let go of the brake hand under any circumstance whatsoever and the other hand is only a guide. Bob called out, “On Rappel”; we heard “Rappel On” called out from below. It was too late to turn back; Bob was at the point of no return. It was time and then…
Then it happened, Bob’s magical rubber leg kicked in. One of his legs started shaking uncontrollably. (I later found out that this happens regularly when he is juiced up and about to do something daring or dangerous). Bob pushed through his rubber leg and backed his butt inch by inch over the edge, finally “sitting” back over the edge. He took a little step or two and then found purchase on a little ledge a couple of feet down and decided to stand upright again.
A look of relief came over Bob’s face and then a look of terror as he realized that he still had a long way to go and would have to “sit” back over the edge all again. With a deep breath and a sigh Bob disappeared over the edge for the last time. We heard no screaming or crashing sounds and assumed that he safely made it to the bottom safely. Then we heard “Off Rappel”. This meant that he was off the rope and it was the next person’s turn.
I’ve seen Bob’s “Jimmy Legs” many times before, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy to see his legs quivering. Bob put on one helluva façade, and I really thought he was absolutely fearless. It turns out, as he would later tell me, that he was almost as terrified as I was… almost… but not quite. I think I was clearly the most terrified member of Team Virtus.
Having to “sit back” for the first time was positively terrifying. I had a death grip on the top rope, so tight I could barely unclench my fingers. Stupid rubber leg. I had you guys fooled for a minute there.
Luke was what you’d call a little uneasy and as much as he wanted to rappel he has this thing about heights and not really liking them all that much. Part of Luke’s trepidation was caused by two events that Bob probably missed while he was receiving his rappelling instruction. The first incident involved a hyperactive little dog running around near the edge of the cliff. At one point the dog ran full speed past us and right to the edge of the cliff, stopping only inches from falling to his death. Had the dog tripped of slipped in the leaves, even just a little, it would have been all over for him. While Luke and I were watching Bob prepare to rappel the dog somehow found his was safely to the bottom without us seeing him do so. Then Luke saw the dog at the base of the cliff and thought that he had fallen over the edge. You’d think the thought that a dog surviving a 100+ foot fall would bring ease to Luke. I mean if a little dog didn’t die from the fall a big, strong man should be okay, right? No, somehow it only added fuel to the fear burning deep inside of Luke.
I seriously thought that dog was dead. That little pooch was fearless. Here is a clip that portrays how I saw things in my head:
The next event that occurred and almost deterred Luke all together was an incident with another first time rappeller. This guy was just going over the edge when he slipped and then totally disappeared. The guy recovered and safely made his way down but it wasn’t at all comforting to Luke. He now realized that slipping and falling was a real possibility.
I don’t think anyone knows how close I truly was to backing out. My palms were sweating. My heart was beating uncontrollably. My sphincter was contracted with maximum force so that I wouldn’t crap all over myself and my brand new harness. But Bob made it down alive, and I knew I’d always regret it if I didn’t at least try it.
Luke stated he was going next or he might not go at all. I don’t think he wanted to be waiting at the top alone and then have to go over the edge without the support of a teammate at the top. Plus, sometimes it is better to just get it over with and end all the anticipation. This was fine by me so I sat back and observed the process again. Luke did a great job of overcoming his strong dislike for heights, manning up, and gettin’ er done. Luke received the same instruction that Bob did and slowly made his way backwards toward the edge. I tried 3 different times to catch a video of him going over the edge but each time I started recording he would have another question for the instructor. I am not sure if he was buying a few more minutes of safety or just wanted to be sure that he understood all the directions.
I handed the camera to the volunteer (who was clipped in) and asked him to lean out and take a picture of Luke as he was descending. Luke “sat” over the edge and slowly let out some line with his brake hand. The volunteer told Luke to stop and snapped a sweet picture of him out over the edge with the river below him. Then Luke disappeared from my view and I heard, “Off Rappel” letting me know that Luke was down safe.
I really thought I was going to die. My mind was screaming, “You FOOL! You don’t have to do this! You have four (Yes, I said four – I’m very potent) young children at home that need their father!” When I finally got myself to actually sit all the way back and actually feel the rope hold me easily, my sphincter loosened a little, and I realized that I could do this. The volunteer (who was awesome by the way) told me to look up and smile, so I did just that. Then I had the time of my life as I rappelled down safely and easily. It was exhilarating, amazing, and sooooooooooooo much fun! And it was a HUGE relief.
Now it was my turn. I had to do this. I was the only present teammate to have ever rappelled before. I was all alone at the top of the cliff, no teammates, no support. Luke was right in not wanting to go last. I took a deep breath, slapped myself in the face and headed to the cliff edge. Quickly, I got some directions from the instructor and decided to quickly “sit” over the edge. I knew the hardest part was getting started and that standing at the top thinking about it could make the issue seem almost insurmountable. I knew it was safe and that if I were to slip and fall the bottom belayer would stop me with a fireman’s belay stop.
I called out “Rappel On”, heard a familiar voice answer “On Rappel” and backed towards the lip of the cliff. I let out some line with my brake hand and leaned back over the edge and I was off. I kicked out and away from the rock face and let the rope gently slide through my brake hand. I repeated this several times as I bounced along the vertical wall to the cliff base. What a blast. Adrenaline was coursing through my veins and I was ready to tackle the world. As I was unclipping myself from the rope I looked over to thank my bottom-belayer and found the source of the familiar voice that I had heard from the top. You might have already guessed it; the voice I had heard was my own brother’s voice, Luke, who to my knowledge had never belayed a rappel before. Well, now he has and he did a great job. Had I known Luke was my backup, my safety valve, while I was still at the top convincing myself it was safe, I would have had one more thing to worry about. But it worked out fine and Luke did a great job. I made it safely to the bottom of the cliff. I finished unclipping myself and then quickly called out, “Off Rappel”. We did it. Team Virtus had successfully rappelled for the first time. We quickly climbed back to the top and made our way towards the Tyrolean Traverse.
I wish we would have taken pictures of us at the bottom of that first rappel. My face had to have been beaming. After lots of fist bumps, high fives, and maybe even a man-hug or two, we were ready to move on.
A volunteer informed us that the quickest way to the Tyrolean traverse was down a larger, more challenging rappel. Not a problem, we were pros by this time and rappelling was old news. We were excited and actually looking forward to this rappel. We all three quickly worked our way down cliff one by one, thoroughly enjoying the experience this time. The hardest part of the day and possibly the camp was that first rappel. During the first rappel we all learned a lesson, which Gerry repeated often during the lecture earlier in the day that made the rest of the day easier and more enjoyable for us… “Trust your equipment”.
Our equipment had now been tested and proved to us that it would work. We now truly internalized and believed what we were trying hard to convince ourselves of before that first rappel…You have to trust your equipment. We now knew how safe rappelling can be when set up correctly and with the proper use of the right gear. Soon we all were at the bottom and headed over towards the traverse.
It amazed me how much easier the second rappel was. Yes, I still had that feeling in the pit of my stomach, but it was MUCH smaller. It really did feel like we were already pros.
We found out that the traverse was now only going in one direction (towards us) and that we would have to climb back up and go around and down the zip line to get to the other side of the traverse. We thought about using the ascenders but the line was long and not moving really quickly so we decided to climb up the side of the cliff using a fixed rope and head directly to the zip line.
The line for the zip line was long and very slow moving. It turns out that the zip line had somehow “sagged” a little bit over night which resulted in the line being a little slower. To the point that everybody was stopping near the middle of the line and had to pull their selves hand over hand along the rope to reach the end of the line. The distance of this pull depended on how big you were and how hard you pushed off when you left the cliff. I was hoping that Team Virtus would capitalize on our size and strength and zip further than the others and have a minimal pull at the bottom. We watched person after person zip down as we patiently waited in line.
While in line, we had many good conversations with all the great people around us. One team, Jilly and Mitch, talked with us for much of the duration of the wait. Mitch, an experienced rock climber, was a little anxious about the zip line (having never done one before) and considered it a potential highlight of the camp. As we neared the front of the line you could feel the butterflies waking up in your stomach. Luke went first; he wanted to be the first for one of the events. All the friends that we had made during our extended wait began to chant, “Let’s go, Luke, Let’s go” with a couple of claps after each cycle. Luke quickly clipped onto the zip line and was away. He zipped further than most and pulled himself quickly to the end. Next it was my turn…
I approached the end and clipped in. I received no chants. It was silent, I could actually hear crickets. I looked at the people in the line and guilted them into starting up the same chant Luke got but with my name. Now I was getting pumped up and approached the edge with my back facing down the hill. I pushed off as hard as I could and let out a voracious “Whoooooo” of ecstasy as I slid down the rope. I went faster and further than anybody that I had seen so far.
However, I still had to pull myself to the end of the rope. I thought I was at the end so I stopped pulling only to have a volunteer tell me to, “Keep coming”. I tried stop at least 2 more times and received the same instruction, “Keep coming”. I decided to pull until they told me to stop. My butt was literally dragging in the leaves but I continued to pull. Finally the volunteer finally told me, “That’s good, stop”. I stood up, and soon realized why you had to pull yourself so far, in order to give yourself a little “courtesy slack” in the rope and keep your harness from castrating you. I quickly unclipped and got in a good spot to view the zip line as I and waited for Bob to go.
We heard the chant start up from the top and then saw Bob fling out into the ravine and zip towards us. He as moving pretty good but still had to pull himself to the bottom. When he unclipped he had the greatest look on his face. The only way I can describe it was that he was alive; he was living life to the fullest. He was a little flush and pretty amped up as the adrenaline was still flowing through his veins. I am sure that Luke and I had the same look when we finished.
I knew exactly how Bob was feeling…this is what life is about, these types of once in a lifetime experiences that we were sharing right here, right now. How lucky were we to be here, together experiencing this and living this life? We truly were blessed to have the chance to attend this camp and have these experiences. We looked around and had to decide whether we wanted to rock climb or skip that and head for the traverse and then the fixed rope ascend. Bob really wanted to climb, so as a team we decided to give rock climbing a shot.
Bob, once again, was up first. As he was getting ready to climb, Luke was strapping into a daisy chain at the base of the cliff and was going to belay Bob on this climb. I think it was a first for both of them. The climbing route that Bob picked for us to climb was christened “the Shimmy in the Chimney”. It was a decent sized crack in the wall that went all the way up to the top of this little plateau. Bob climbed like a damn mountain goat. He started up one side of the crack, then bridged the gap and used both sides to “shimmy” up a ways only to finally switch off onto the back of the crack and continue up towards his goal.
Near the top Bob got both fingers on this little ledge and did a full body pull up and then quickly found a foot hold. Soon, he was pulling himself out of the chimney and sat on top edge catching his breath. Then he let Luke carefully lower him back down to the ground.
I think Bob would have preferred to have had the volunteer belay him, but he never said anything. And it wasn’t my first belay. I did a little bit of Rock climbing on my NOLS course 10 years ago, so Bob was safe, Right?
I had total confidence in you, man. Plus I was trying to look tough in front of Abbie.
I have a little “gym climbing” (indoor climbing facility) experience and hoped that it would help me out here. I soon learned how much of a difference climbing shoes really make. I regularly use them in the gym and apparently have gotten pretty used to them. Now, in my bulky trail shoes, I couldn’t feel the rock surface with my feet and struggled to get enough purchase what should have been simple toe holds. I decided to use the “shimmy” approach and put one hand and foot on the rock face on one side of the crack and the other hand and foot on the other side. I quickly worked my way up the crack in jumping jack fashion.
Soon, the chasm became narrower and I could no longer use this technique properly, there was just too much of me. I switched and placed my back on one side and my hands and feet on the other (this is where Bob went up the back of the crack and I probably should have done so too) and continued my climb in this fashion, slowly crawling up the crack. I soon got to the pull up ledge, pulled my body up, found a toe hold and then I was on top looking down at my teammates.
Now it was Luke’s turn to climb and mine to belay him. Luke’s climb was almost identical to mine. He used very similar techniques and a similar route. Luke soon crested the top and sat down to take in the view. When he was ready I carefully lowered him down the face of the cliff.
Somehow during his climb he had managed to scratch the heck out of his back. It looked as if Luke tried to wear an angry bobcat as a backpack. We all enjoyed this little chimney and the experience we shared by climbing it. Now it was time to move onto the much anticipated Tyrolean traverse.
I was not going to climb. I figured I have done a little bit of climbing before, and I just didn’t need to do it. In all honesty, I was a little scared again. I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t try it (especially since Bob and Casey had already done it), so I sucked it up and did it. I’m very glad I did.
Tyrolean Traverse (TT)
For those of you unfamiliar with the term below if the Wikipedia’s definition of a Tyrolean traverse:
A Tyrolean traverse is method of crossing through free space between two high points on a rope without a hanging cart or cart equivalent. This is used in a range of mountaineering activities: rock climbing, technical tree climbing, caving and water crossings.
For this TT we were crossing a river. We received some brief instructions on the various TT techniques and were asked if we’d be okay crossing without a volunteer to help us up on the other side. I quickly answered,” Absolutely”, knowing that Luke was going first and that I’d have him over there to help me if I needed it. Luke clipped in and walked to the river’s edge. He then pushed off the bank and into the air fully “trusting” his equipment. He pulled himself across the river and to the other bank. Once there, he had to find purchase on the dirt and root covered river bank. He quickly was able to do so and scurried up into the grass and unclipped himself from the rope.
Bob scurried across in the same fashion. While he was mounting the bank he slipped and almost slid back over the river, but he was able to catch himself and horse himself bodily up and onto the bank.
I brought up the rear mimicking my teammates’ efforts. I too slipped a bit on my way up the bank. We all easily traversed the river suspended from a taut rope by only our harnesses. We kept ourselves completely dry and are now capable of repeating this feat in a race.
From the TT we headed to the ascending portion of the camp. We waited in a slow moving line and decided we had time to make a quick rappel while we waited for the line to dwindle down. Much to our dismay the rappel line near the vertical fixed rope ascend had already been taken down. It was back to waiting in the line. We waited for a bit then heard the words we hoped not to hear. They told us that they only had time for 5 or 6 more people to ascend and then they had to take the ropes down and head out to set up the rest of the ropes for the race tomorrow morning. We were about 12th in line and realized we wouldn’t get to learn the technique at this time and were slightly disappointed.
I was bummed that we missed out on this, but there’s always next year.
Me too, I think the fact that the zip line was moving so slow was what really screwed us up. Like you guys said though, there’s always next time.
Stupid zip line.
However, the disappointment soon dissipated as we headed back to our cabin discussing and reliving the experiences that we had shared all afternoon. We felt as if we had redeemed ourselves a little bit and felt good heading into tomorrow’s race. As a team we had learned all that we had hoped and even a little more.
Team Virtus can now effectively (and more importantly safely) rappel, Tyrolean traverse, zip line, rock climb, belay one another, and have tons of fun while doing it. We agreed right then and there that we were sticking with the 8 hour race, and we were all very excited for all the promise the next day held. But before the race we still had much to do. We had a buffet dinner later that night, then a great lecture on foot health and foot care (given by Olympic kayaker Dr. Jeremy Rodgers), then the race briefing, packing for the race, and after a good’s night sleep and buffet breakfast in the morning the race would finally start.
“Good night’s sleep” might not be the word for it thanks to Casey. Just read the race report right here. It was an amazing day… One I’ll never forget.