Sunday, November 18, 2012

Falling on Aid

A couple of years ago, I fell from 400 feet up a cliff in Yosemite.

As expected, I did not take the big ride all the way to the ground.  My climbing partner caught me on the rope before I'd gone very far and I swung, ignominiously but safely, as I had done many times before.

But something was different this time.  Though the fall was "clean" - that is, in climber lingo, there were no ledges or projections of rock for me to hit on the way - I somehow swung hard enough into the wall to break my ankle in several places.  We eventually got down with the help of Yosemite's amazing mountain rescue team. (I wrote a more detailed account of the adventure here.)

What made the difference? I'd taken falls before, some just as long, without damaging anything except my pride.  Probably luck had a lot to do with it: but, when I think about the experience, I remember something else as well.  This was the first significant fall I had taken when aid climbing.

For non-climbers, this will need a little explanation.  Among the tools of the climber's trade are various mechanical widgets - "nuts", "cams", "pins", collectively known as "gear" - which can be slotted into rock features to create temporary anchors.  When perfectly placed in good rock, some of these are strong enough to hold an elephant.  When the placement or the rock quality is less than optimum, they may be strong enough to hold your body weight plus a couple of fleas.

Different climbing styles make use of this technology in different ways.  In "free climbing", only strength of feet and fingers, and skill in balance and body positioning, are used as the climber journeys up the cliff.   The rope and gear are used only to create a protection system so that, if the climber should slip, the result will not be fatal.  (Without rope or gear at all the climber is "free soloing".)  A falling climber will be held by the rope running through the highest piece of gear that s/he has placed - hopefully not too far below!

Free climbing is by far the most usual, but on the towering granite walls of Yosemite Valley another, older climbing style is also practiced.  When climbers first ventured onto these walls the idea of "freeing" them was almost inconceivable.  Instead, they made their way up by "aid climbing".     In this style the gear is used not only for protection, but also directly in "aid" of upward progress.  Rather than performing the delicate rock gymnastics of free climbing, we are improvising a solution to an engineering problem while dangling in midair.  It is not so elegant, but it can get a climber of average ability (like me) to some wildly beautiful places.   That is why I was aiding up the Prow on Yosemite's Washington Column in spring 2010 when a marginal cam pulled out, sending me on the ankle-breaking ride which ended up in hospital in Modesto.

Pardon the digression. What did  aiding have to do with my injury? Well, I have taken a few falls while free climbing.  In each case, I have known at some "gut" level that I was about to fall, before it actually happened.  Your body awareness tells you that your fingers are uncurling or your foot is slipping, a moment before you actually cut loose.  I think that moment of realization gives your body time to prepare for what's coming.  You become "springy", like a cat getting ready to land. 

An aid fall is different.  If a piece of gear pops out, it probably does so without warning.  One moment you are standing, stretching high for the next placement: the next, like a switch, local gravity has been turned off and you are accelerating down.  With no early warning provided by body awareness, you may (I think I did) land with stiff limbs, not ready to absorb the shock.  As I experienced, the consequences can be much more damaging.

I see this little story as a parable about some aspects of our (my) relationship to technology.  Like aid-climbing gear, technology can get me to some amazing places, places that I could never have reached without its help.  But part of the price for that journey may be a loss of my ability to sense when something is about to go wrong.  Completely reliant on a technology which was originally introduced as a protective device, I may paradoxically become more insulated from direct experience of reality and therefore more vulnerable.

Photo copyright Karl Bralich.

No comments: