John Sherman

John Sherman

John Sherman is the Godfather of American bouldering. Without his broad shoulders to stand on, Daniel Woods would be toproping 5.7 right now.

Stone Master

John Sherman's Blog- March 2011

Blog March 2011

Welcome from Scotchdale, Arizona, where last night I was scheduled to be interviewed on the Climb Talk radio show in Boulder, but technical difficulties screwed up the whole deal.  So now, instead of 7 listeners (c’mon Friday night in Boulder and you’re listening to climbing talk radio?) hearing me rant, I’ll have all 30 of my blog fans privy to my pearls of wisdom.


So in case you missed it, the first half of last night’s program was an interview with folks from Rocky Mountain Rescue, focusing in part on a severed rope incident in Eldorado Canyon.  The show’s hosts tried to pry some advice from the RMR folks about what ropes would have been better to use, the benefits and drawbacks of double ropes, and the like, but in typical shrinking violet American pleeeze-don’t-sue-me fashion the RMR guys refused to offer up any advice. 


I guess that leaves it up to me. 


Let’s start by placing the blame where it belongs, not with RMR (they just clean up the mess) but with the gym owners and gear marketeers.  Climbing these days has been so dumbed down that the average climber has no idea how to do a hip belay or tie in to a bowline-on-a-coil.  Did I lose you already?  If not, consider yourself brilliant or so old you should be stuffed and placed in a museum. 


When I started climbing my first lead was Portent in the Pinnacles National Monument,  south of San Francisco.  The pro back then was a few (I think 3?) widely spaced 1/4 –inch bolts in crappy rock and some tied-off knobs (also in crappy rock).   It was horrifying, but I learned right of the bat that I’d better not fall on sketchy terrain.   (Now it get’s 5.6 R, but back then it was considered reasonably protected, as in you probably would stop before hitting the ground.)  I didn’t own any gear besides slings and biners so it seemed a good choice for a first lead.


Nowadays, sending somebody on this as a first lead (versus weeks of gym-leading experience followed by months of bolt-every-6-feet leads) would be considered criminal.  Which is one of the biggest things wrong with climbing these days.  Climbers are coddled so much that they aren’t expected to stick their necks out until they already lead 5.10 or 5.11 on route’s so bolt-plastered they may as well be topropes.  By this time, the climber is so conditioned to be a chickenshit, that they will probably never develop the mental fortitude to tackle real climbs like The Nose.  Hell, they’ll probably back off Bastille Crack


Now, I understand this is all a function of how gym owners find themselves in a tough situation.  Many start out as climbers eager to offer a service to their fellow locals, then soon discover they will go bankrupt and have to sell their kids to become sex slaves if they don’t focus the gym on running Cub Scout events and birthday parties.  To get the Brownies to show up they need to dumb down and sanitize the sport to the point it appears risk-free. 


This leaves us with a climbing population overloaded with climbers who can only belay with a Gri-Gri, have no idea how to tie a bowline-on-a-coil, and couldn’t Dulfersitz to save their life.


Which brings us back to the radio show and the quiet RMR guys.  It’s time climbers get a short list (feel free to add to this in the comments) of skills they need to know.


First off, every climber should be comfortable being able to catch a 100-foot fall on a hip belay.  (For the ignorant out there, a hip belay consists of wrapping the rope around your waist to provide the friction to stop a fall, not running the rope through a device like an ATC).  WTF Verm?  A 100-foot fall?  You’re crazy.  Hell no, any climber should be able to catch the worst fall (say a factor 2 lob with only 50 feet of rope out) at any time, any second, any split-second in their entire climbing career.  It’s easy – just focus on your task (You’re belaying now, not socializing, tweeting, etc.) and DON’T EVER TAKE YOUR FUCKIN’ BRAKE HAND OFF THE ROPE. 


Once you absorb that, learn how to belay and rappel if you drop/lose your belay/rappel device.  Learn a hip belay and how to set up a ‘biner brake to rappel.  Learn how to tie in without a harness.  Master belaying with a Muenter hitch. Learn how to tie a prussik or Kleimheist, and ascend a rope with that.  Take a self-rescue class – learn how to get to baseline and effect a rescue.   Learn how to properly equalize an anchor, and how to set an anchor to counteract an upward pull.  Learn how to use an autoblock.


Once you have that down, learn how to place gear.  Don’t become cam-dependent - just because cams cost more, doesn’t mean they work better.  Master the art of passive gear placement (Stoppers, hexes, tied-off knobs and the such).  Learn how to identify the best gear placement available and choose the best type of gear for the placement. 


Learn the physics of the rope/belay system.  Know how impact forces work and how you can reduce them with rope choice/belay setup/belay device choice, etc.  Develop an awareness of how far you might fall in a given situation and if you might hit an obstacle in the fall. 


Develop awareness for how the rope will pull on a protection piece in a fall – not just the last piece placed, but how the angle of the rope might tug pieces lower down the pitch in a deleterious direction.  When this sinks in you will understand the benefits of double rope technique.  Double ropes rule, but not always.  Understand the drawbacks (more rope stretch with thinner cords, higher chance of belayer error) and the advantages (lower impact forces, not pulling up slack to clip in dicey stances, two ropes to get down, high odds against both ropes severing, ability to use laterally spaced lines of protection, reduced rope drag).


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