Brotherhood of the Rope
Say What – Brotherhood of the Rope? What is that? Could it be an association of hangmen, or even a posthumous group of those that were hanged? Or maybe it’s a union organization of those that build anything from cheap plastic ropes to the cables that hold up the Golden Gate Bridge. Or a chain gang back in the days when they didn’t use chains – sort of a rope gang. Or could it be just a bunch of goofballs who all bought Soap on a Rope at the same time.
Let me tell you a little story to show how I was initiated into the Brotherhood of the Rope. We were just below the summit of the Eiger in Switzerland on the Metellegi Ridge headed up for the last couple of pitches. The guide I was roped to had dropped his ice axe and requisitioned mine. He carefully made his way across a 4 inch knife edge covered with black ice – to the right was a 5000 foot drop to the valley below - to the left it was closer to 3000 on the back side. As I looked at the 50 feet in front of me, I hesitated. Maybe I should try to crawl, scooting along the ridge with one leg hanging over each side.
The guide yelled at me to just put one cramponed foot in front of the other, but to not grab the rope if I started to fall. This was bad news since the rope was the only protection I had. I started out, didn’t look down and crossed the 50 feet in about 30 seconds. Then I ask the guide what the “don’t grab the rope” was all about. He explained in definitive terms that if I had started to fall one way or the other, I would drag him off with rope in hand. However without me to pull him off as I fell, he could jump the opposite way and we would be straddling the knife-edge – one on each side hanging down. He figured from there he could work his way up to the top on his side and pull me on up, Hence the Brotherhood of the Rope. I found that during the years I attempted to climb, that the rope – that 160 foot rope climbing saved my hide several times as I fell during a climb.
I was attempting Castleton Tower (400 vertical feet) down by Moab, Utah. On the third pitch there was some white calcite just outside the crack we were struggling up. My friend was belaying me and told me to swing out of the narrowing crack, get a grip on the calcite and climb on up. I swung out of the crack and put my hand on the calcite – uh huh, I couldn’t the faintest handhold – not even for a fingernail. I tried several more times until I was tired out. I thought for a minute and then yelled up to the belay stance above me – “Brace yourself I’m coming up the Rope” And I did exactly that – hand over hand till I got to his belay perch. Unsportsmanlike, amateur moves, unethical, not quite up to par, old chap – say what you want but I wanted up and the rope was right there, – I often had whomever was belaying me pull on the rope with all their might as I climbed. Sometimes I felt that I could give up my hold on the rock and I would fly right up.
A climbing purest looks at risk, ambition, and loyalty to one’s teammates, self-sacrifice and the price of glory. Why climb you ask with all the attendant risk and hassle? Well I can give you Mallory’s 1933 answer as he got within 600 feet of the top of Everest and then was avalanched off and died. “Because its there”. Me, I just wanted to get up whatever peak or tower we were trying – a personal goal – where accomplishment was almost beyond my ability.
While I’m on the subject of not quite meeting the unwritten rules of climbing, let me tell you how we got to the top of Elbrus in Russia, at 19,000 feet the tallest mountain in Europe. Some Nazis from Germany actually put up a Swastika Flag for a few months during 1943 when they controlled this area about 1000 miles south of Moscow. Naturally our weather was bad and after a couple of carries up the mountain, it became obvious to me that starting from 13,000 feet at 3:00 AM, we would never make it to 19,000 and back. I scouted around and found a snow cat. No one knew who owned it but heavily bearded gentlemen came up to see what we wanted. He said he could get us up 3000 feet for $200. I almost shouted, “deal” but went back to tell my fellow climbers. Well, other climbers heard about what we were doing and when we left there were 10 of us all jammed in the rear seat for three – almost tilting the machine since some of the pitches were 45 degrees. We climbed from where he left us at the Petrokov rocks right into a blizzard. There were peals of thunder again and again and horizontal snow at about 50 MPH. Our Russian Guide said we would have to turn around if there was any other claps of thunder. There were not and later on we found that the rolling thunder was from the discharge of large guns from Georgia just over the border during its civil war. We did stay roped up the entire time because there were crevasses and we had a couple of guys on the rope break through snow bridges and disappear momentarily but all of us in our party finally got up. What normally stops climbers from success is altitude sickness (pulmonary or cerebral edema), weather, or just the lack of ambition to get up and suffer severe problems and exhaustion on a mountain.
Speaking of Snow Bridges one of the best (very short) climbing books is “Touching the Void” by Joe Simpson. It’s about two good friends who are climbing in South America. One falls and breaks his pelvis and leg near the top of the mountain. Dark is approaching so they decide to go straight down a 70-degree ice and snow slope. Eventually darkness falls and the injured climber just about pulled his partner off each time he is thrashed downward. The uninjured partner realizes that he is going to be pulled off the mountain so he cuts the rope and the injured partner slides down the mountain, over a cliff and through a snow bridge into a crevasse at night. All she wrote, right? Well that’s what the first partner thinks and he makes his way back to camp the next morning. His severely injured buddy finally figures out a way to get up out of the crevasse and crawls the six miles back to camp over a four-day period through a crevassed glacier just as everyone is breaking camp to leave. One hell of a read.
Who hasn’t heard of Hemingway’s famous book the Snows of Kilimanjaro? Its one of the seven summits and probably one of the easiest. There are a bunch of different routs up the volcano, but I opted for the “Coca Cola” route, so named because there is Coke available at every camp as you ascend. While it’s basically a hike, the weather and altitude can play havoc. We were at the high camp getting ready to go at midnight and one of my sons suddenly began projectile vomiting. Never seen it before, don’t ever want to see it again. He basically tossed the contents of his stomach across a room of about 20 feet. You could hear the rales in his chest as pulmonary edema was trying to drown him. Solution – go down immediately. Two of our guides put him on a homemade gurney that had a single bike tire and headed on down. As soon as he got to lower altitudes he was fine again.
Aconcagua – Sentinel of Stone – tallest mountain in North or South American. A large number of climbers in a cemetery at the bottom of the mountain. Very challenging because of weather and the height – 22,839 feet. Only about 25% get up of those who try for the summit. In fact as you ascend your blood thickens causing some climbers undergo strong personality changes, and become very negative. You generally want to climb with people you like and trust rather than strangers. In 1990 we tried Aconcagua – absolutely no success – got up to about 17,000 and the guide convinced us to come down because of weather. We had the wrong food, the wrong equipment, no ropes, and our guide had never climbed the mountain before – absolute great recipe for disaster. It takes a long time to get up the mountain and you have to have staying power and a good support team. So we camped in the ice and snow until our time ran out and we headed home with our tails between our legs. The hike out to civilization was 20 miles so that was another bummer.
In 1998 we tried it again with a superb native guide who had fresh food for us to eat, a large tent at base camp and an encyclopedic knowledge of the mountain. It would snow during the day and then the winds – up to 80 mph would come at night and blow the snow away and us with it if we didn’t have everything tied down. Sometimes the wind would gust so hard if would lift the bottom of the tent up even though we were in it. As I mentioned before as you get way up on a big mountain, there are personality changes that are unexpected to the point I have seen one climber threaten to kill another over a card game. Our guide Antonio came to us about thirteen days after we had been on the mountain and asked,” did we believe in God”? We affirmed we did and he then said, that we had better start praying to him for clear weather because we were running out of time. Myself I doubted that God was much concerned whether we got up Aconcagua or not, but we did pray. Next morning, beautiful sunny weather, not a breath of wind. We charged up the mountain in four days from base camp and then the weather came right back in again. Ten people died on the mountain while we were there – to swell the numbers in the cemetery that already had over 100 climbers residing there. There were two young Polish climbers in their early 20’s just next to us. They were determined to get up at all costs – I climbed right by the body of one two days after we talked with them – caught in a lenticular cloud filled with ice crystals that roared around the summit at 100 mph – he froze to death in that cold.
One of our party left after about 9 days – he crumped. When you get disgusted and decide to leave for home its called crumping. To crump is to let the hardship and danger of expedition life drain you of all your mountaineering ambitions, so that all you want to do is to get the hell out of there. After crump sets in, you’ve psychologically thrown in the towel: you care only about going home and you’ll make up all sorts of excuses as to why it makes sense to hike out early. I usually felt like crumping after a couple of days of being pinned down in a very small pup tent in the middle of a five-day storm. After a while you begin to hate your tent mate and his stories and wonder why the hell you are there.
On most big mountains, especially in the Himalayas, Sherpa’s string out fixed ropes, so all you have to do is to clip into the rope and then use it to pull yourself up – sort of like some of the climbs where I pulled myself up the rope. It’s easier and you don’t get discouraged so fast. Fewer Crumpers. No one sleeps well, and the higher you get the less sleep. I took some Darviset to help me with back pain and to sleep better at 17,000 feet. What I ended up doing was depressing my respiratory system. I stopped breathing that night three or four times. After that I just assumed I wouldn’t sleep and concentrated on the flu symptoms the higher up we went – pretty much everyone feels crummy at high altitudes.
We spent several summers climbing in the Tetons – the Grand, Nez Piece, Disappointment Peak, and Baxter’s Pinnacle. All of it straight up rock with some overhangs. You never free climbed anything, unless you were an idiot, you always stayed roped up. It’s an eerie feeling when you slip off your perch and start to fall and then you come to a halt – the nylon rope stretches so it’s not quite so jarring. There were three of us standing on a 4-inch ledge tied into the mountain. The guide started climbing upward, got a new belay stance and indicated next on the rope to follow him. I could not see for the life of me where there were any hand or footholds, so I yelled as I had in the past, keep plenty of tension on the rope. On the Grand we had a guide who limped quite badly. Not a real confidence builder.
When you come of the top of the Grand there is a blind rappel - what that means is that for 160 feet you are swinging in space with the wind blowing you back and forth – the void way below you. All of the climbs usually have some sort of rappel down. I was rappelling off Independence Tower on a very hot day. My metal rappel device, called a figure eight was already warm from the sun. I rappelled down about 150 feet, very rapidly, the rope running through the figure eight. I grabbed the metal now heated to about 225 degrees from friction and nicely branded my left hand.
There is one little problem that no one says much about as you climb. This can happen on a multi-day big wall climb or on a long one-day climb. Experienced climbers know that they should use the bathroom right before they begin, but things happen. Climbing code says that you don’t use the rock as a restroom – no sending stuff down below on other climbers, no depositing anything in cracks in the rock. Here is the problem – you need to urinate – solution, bring a wide mouth water bottle with you. But what if its good old number 2 – You have a couple of choices – rappel as rapidly as you can off the wall face, or if its a multi day climb you are expected to bring along a Poop Tube. Four inch plastic pipe about three feet long – removable cap on the top. It is an art to hang your backside out in the void and get the tube lined up just right. Speaking of disposal, one of the problems faced by any mountaineer, especially if he is a bit older is going to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Protocol calls for you to get up go outside the tent a reasonable distance and relieve yourself in sometimes 50 MPH winds and a horizontal blizzard. I soon found that taking an empty water bottle to bed with you eliminated this severe inconvenience. Although I found that if you left it outside it was frozen solid in the morning. So it stayed inside the sleeping bag along with my boots.
My last climb was with three sons and a son-in-law was on Rainier. Not an especially hard mountain, but with lots of crevices and ice falls. Unfortunately most climbs start in the middle of the night. One, because everything is frozen solid then and won’t fall on you, two, so you can get up the mountain and down again before it’s too late in the day. We summited Rainier after about 8 hours just in time to see the sun come up. On the way down I was looking out in the distance and dropped my ice axe down a crevice with apparently no bottom. Even though we were roped together, my eldest son put me on a very short 6-foot rope. I continually looked out at the horizon instead of my feet and he was getting jerked all around. Finally as I fell repeatedly, he told me that he would let go the rope and he and the others could get my body out of a crevice eventually. I paid more attention after that based on what I knew about my family members.
But really I’ve been lucky to climb in a lot of places, had great partners who really did honor the brotherhood of the rope – our interdependence inherent among members of our climbing team, and our reliance upon one another for safety, security and success.
However if I offer you a drink from my wide-mouthed water bottle, you might want to make sure that it wasn’t inside my sleeping bag last night.