Solitude Strategies

or How to Bag a Crag!
Summertime - my thoughts turn to climbing... and I'll bet yours too! Along, alas, with those of several of my co-workers, my neighbor down the street, his twelve-year-old kid, his twelve-year-old kid's dog, and two of the three waitresses at my favorite breakfast joint. Ten years ago, climbing was something only a wacko with a death wish would do. Now it's a popular mainstream sport, nurtured in expensive indoor gyms, practiced by nearly everyone.

The surge in climbing numbers has advantages: it's easier to explain to people what exactly it is you did over the weekend; your girlfriend is less likely to demand you give up climbing for her (and more likely to lead two grades harder than you do), and, as the market has increased in size, gear has come down -- a bit -- in price. But, darn, these are more than offset by one whopper of a disadvantage: the crags are incredibly crowded, and getting more so every year.

If you're like me, you hate climbing in a crowd, and who can blame you? Full parking lots, take-a-number queues at the base of each route, rockfall, gearfall, lunchfall, sharing tiny ledges with two other parties, everyone screaming at the same time: "Off belay!" "WHAT?" The guys one pitch ahead are always a party of three, and only one of them knows the difference between a #4 Camalot and the movie Camelot, and he just learned to lead last week.

But you don't have to climb with the cattle. Over the years, my partners and I have come up with a few ploys er, techniques which are guaranteed to get you out of the rock rat race. That's right, climbing can be the wilderness experience it once was if you just follow my advice.

Solitude Through Obscurity. Forget about those three-star routes in your guidebook. Forget about the two-star routes, too. And while you're at it, you might as well write off the one-star routes. Those little asterisks are big neon signs for the masses, shouting, "Hey, You! Climb This One!" No, you want to stick to the lines that nobody's ever heard of, that nobody wants to do. Look in the guidebook descriptions for words like "grungy", "obscure", and "worthless". Discover the, um, unusual pleasures of grunting up a decomposed off-width; you can just about bet you'll be the only one climbing it that day or that year.

The Approach is the Crux. If it's easy for people to get to, they will; cross it off your list if it's less than an hour's hike from the parking lot. The same hardbody who thinks nothing of slithering up an overhanging face with nothing but a few jutting crystals for handholds will quiver at the thought of actually walking with his feet! on a trail. In alpine areas, where long hikes are de rigueur, you'll need to throw in extra obstacles: choose routes where the approach involves wading icy rivers, bushwhacking through a lush field of poison ivy, or crossing land owned by a shotgun-toting marijuana grower.

The Early Bird Catches the Route. The trick is to get to the crags before anybody else does, so you can drop rocks on them, instead of the other way around. Unfortunately, no matter what ridiculous hour your alarm goes off, there's always a pair of overachievers who've gotten up even earlier and of course they're heading for your route. The solution? Bivy! Drive to the climbing area the afternoon before, hike in, and set up camp at the base of the route. Better yet, for that big wall feel, climb the first thirty feet and set up your Portaledge, just in case some enterprising climbers decide to wake up before dawn and hike in before you've even rolled out of your down bag and fired up your battery-powered cappuccino maker. Won't they be surprised! Especially if it's a sport route.

Off Hours. Canny climbers have always known that the crags tend to be more crowded on weekends, so they climb on weekdays instead. The problem is that everyone's figured this out by now, and weekdays are almost as crowded now as the weekends used to be. (The weekends now, of course, resemble the New York subway at rush hour.) Luckily, there are still some times when solitude-seekers can get away from the masses; for some strange reason, the rocks become almost deserted as soon as the sun goes down. Slap some fresh batteries in your headlamp, and you're set.

Rain Check. It's wonderful to be jamming up sunlit granite on a blue-sky day, isn't it? Everybody else thinks so, too. So wait until the dark clouds roll in and chase away the faint of heart; once the wind starts howling and the raindrops start coming down, you can pretty much choose any line you like. And hey, if they can't cope with little waterfalls pouring down the rock and into their faces, they deserve to lose their bailout gear, right?

The Sandbag Strategy. So you've picked an obscure route with a long approach, and gotten up early on a rainy weekday and another party's trying to head you off at the pass. Don't let all your hard work go for nothing! Once you've ascertained they're going for your chosen route, roll out the serious bullshit. "Oh, you're doing 'Little Fluffy Bunny', huh? That's one heinous offwidth; you've got big gear, right? And I hear that 11d overhang on the second pitch is a real killer." If you're lucky, your hapless victims will be completely taken in, and go climb something else even more obscure. Even if they don't, you can count on them at least stopping and hauling out the guidebook; if you move fast, you can zip on ahead of them and be halfway up the first pitch by the time they get wise.

This should be enough to get you started. Of course, there are advanced Solitude Enhancement techniques, such as blocking off the access road with quarantine signs, but these are not for the novice; besides, I'd rather not reveal all my secrets at least not until the statute of limitations has run out. So apply these techniques wisely and well, and maybe I'll see you at the crags. Or better yet, maybe I won't.

© 1996, Ilana Stern, Mountain Online

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It happens to the best...

Jeremy Colenso (JC), one of South Africa's top sports climbers, recently had to be rescued in dramatic style by veteran Eastern Cape Climber, Keith James. Colenso, who studies law at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, was 30 metres up a pitch, when he saw his rope disappear through a chain anchor above him, and fall to the ground below. That's when he realised, that he had threaded the rope through his harness, but had forgotten to knot it before climbing!

JC, at this stage, was in the middle of the crux move on Classic Manoevres. "You guys better get up here quickly," he shouted, after he managed to stabilise by jamming his left hand and foot into a crack, about a meter below the crux move. His right hand rested on a flat hold, not much bigger than his, uhh, hand! His right foot treading air... for almost half an hour, while Keith climbed up to rescue him.

James commented, "When I got there the guy had been eyeballing the grim reaper for a long time. His whole body had gone into a low tremble and his left forearm was enormously pumped up."

According to Colenso, who was passed gear and a rope and lowered, safe but shaken to the ground, his biggest fear during his ordeal was vertigo. "I've become so used to climbing overhanging caves", he said, "that [while stuck on the vertical wall] I thought my mind would flip over onto the other side. In that state you become unsure if you are still on the rock or not and you just want to jump."

Crag Rat Contributions is (we hope) to become something of a regular feature. It will include titbits overheard at the crag, gossip and humour - probably mostly of an odd nature. Crag Rat hopes to keep his furry little ear close to the rock and pass on some interesting info of a climbing sort. It will not necessarily be non-controversial.

The Crag Rat's Disclaimer: " I said WHAT?!"

© 1996, CragRat, Mountain Online

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