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Life on the edge results in cliffhanger

December 27, 2001

Life on the edge results in cliffhanger



NEW PALZ, N.Y. - My friend Hank has been rock-climbing for 30 years, so as I fell off the face of a 70-foot cliff I had time to calmly reflect that I was in pretty good hands. And sure enough, three feet into the drop Hank tugged on his belaying device and I felt the rope tighten on the harness strapped to my thighs and torso and I hung there in mid-air like a side of meat enjoying the spectacular foliage of the Hudson River valley from the towering rock walls known as the Shawangunk ridge, one of the most popular climbing spots in the East.

I was perfectly content twisting there in a slow circle high above the ground taking in the scenery, but Hank reminded me there was work to be done. He was teaching me how to climb an overhang in the rock, where the cliff actually bows out over your head. It seemed just as reasonable as setting a candlestick on the underside of a dinner table and expecting it to stick.

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In climbing circles this climb was rated a 5.6 - hard, but child's play to the climbing community which fluidly slithers up sheer rock faces like spiders, even going out, up and atop overhanging crags known as ceilings, or in extreme cases, roofs.

My particular problem wasn't exactly a ceiling - more like eaves, maybe. But that didn't decrease my skepticism as I regained my perch: A nick in the rock maybe a half-inch wide for my left foot and some theoretical inconsistency in the cliff even less than that for my right.

Hank wanted me to use a technique known as a "smear," where you place the ball of your foot flat on the wall in front of you and thrust out and up, simultaneously pulling with your fingertips (I'll get to that) then quickly darting your other foot to a new hold above the overhang.

This "smear" had resulted in the aforementioned fall. Your knee has to bend like a jackknife for this to work, and being about as flexible as a Dorito in a drought, I didn't see much chance of this happening. And with this move, your foot only adheres to the rock face with friction for about 0.000236 seconds, giving you that much time to find a resting spot for your other hoof. I didn't see that happening either.

There was a vertical crack in the face, maybe an inch wide. This was where my fingertips were employed at the moment, almost directly above and a little behind my head. The left hand pulls to the left and the right hand pulls to the right and these opposing forces give you the wherewithal to stay in place and then help haul yourself up. This is a fairly easy practice for people who weigh about 50 pounds less than my current 194.

I thought it over, but there was clearly no way to lose 50 pounds before I lost my grip on the rock. "If you see another way, do it," Hank called from below - knowing, I suspect, that there was no other way.

I'm not the determined type. If something's hard, my philosophy is that it is simply better left undone. I inventoried my deficiencies: Too heavy, not enough arm strength, inflexible, not terribly motivated. This was prima facie evidence of failure in my view, and I was comfortable with that. But unfortunately Hank, holding my existence in his hands, was not disposed toward letting me back down.

I set my jaw, pulled mightily apart and up with my hands, planted my right "smear" foot on the rock, pushed off away from the cliff, whipped my left foot up and above the overhang and in one explosive movement I - grabbed hold of a tree.

A stubby thing really, growing out of a fissure in the rock. In climbing circles, you're not supposed to get an assist from the plantlife, but I didn't care. I cared even less when I looked down and noticed the shrub was above the rock overhang. I'd made it! Conquered nature! Defied gravity! Scaled the precipice! Done the impossible!

Now let us never speak of it again.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. You can phone him at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or e-mail him at timr@herald-mail.com.

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