When I was a very little girl, my daddy was a mountain climber. He was truly a wondrous person to behold when he and his friends gathered at our home in order to party down. (Yes, they did that during the fifties, and in some ways they were better at it than the kids nowadays.)
It was a sight to see those guys holding contests of strength and agility in our living room. One of their favorites was the “two fingered pull up,” which was performed using the molding above the living room door, a piece of wood about a half an inch wide. You would reach up and crook the ends of your two longest fingers of each hand over the edge of the molding, and then hang from them, knees bent. No pushing off with your toes allowed as you performed as many chin ups as you could while hanging from the ends of those fingers. Once I saw Daddy do seven of those chin ups, and then, just to rub his strength in, let go with his left hand and did two more.
They used to sing uproarious songs. I was quite stunned when I went to school and discovered that the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic tune were not “He was climbing up the chalkface when the piton gave away. . . (Chorus:) Gory, gory what a helluva a way to die, Gory, gory what a helluva way to die. . .”
It was at the knees of my father that I learned about climbing on a rope, leading pitches, being on belay, and things like that. He survived a spectacular fall once when the whole piece of rock that he was climbing around peeled off the face and went off down the mountain, taking him with it. He still bears the scar of the impact on the right ventricle of his heart.
Today I am moved to think about ropes and rock climbing. There are so many parallels with “real life” when you start thinking about what is entailed when two people are connected. We use phrases like “no strings attached,” “at the end of his rope,” “feeding him a line” and we don’t really think about the implications.
The first thing you learn when you are climbing is that the rope is finite. It has a finite amount of strength, it has a finite life span, and it has a finite length. If you put too much stress on a rope, it will break. You can slide down to the end of it when you are rappelling, and if you have miscalculated the height of the pitch you are on, you could wind up falling to your death because of that error. All climbers know that after a certain amount of time and use, you should retire your climbing rope to a life of tying down loads on your pickup truck because you can no longer trust it to catch and hold you if you fall. It has reached the end of its life span.
When you are climbing up a pitch on the side of a mountain, one person leads and the other person finds a stable position to stay and act as the “safety man”. (This is called being on belay.) The belayer’s job is two-fold. He (or she) is there to act as an anchor in case the leader falls, and because of this he will try to find something large, heavy and stable to wrap the rope around, because a simply braced human body doesn’t really make a great anchor when something that weighs a couple of hundred pounds falls past it and then comes snapping to a halt when it reaches the end of the length of rope that is tied around its waist. So the second part of his job is to give the leader slack on the rope as he climbs up the pitch, because if the rope tied around the leader’s waist becomes too taut, it can pull him (or her) off the mountain and thus lead to the scenario just outlined above.
The lead climber will call for slack, and the belayer will give him some so he can continue climbing up the pitch. The leader is looking for a good place to break off climbing, someplace where he can be secure, and become a good belayer for the person below as that person climbs up to join him. Once I asked my dad what they did if they didn’t find a good place to belay from when leading. He told me that what you do is climb back down and try another direction where you might find a belaying point.
There is only so much rope, and so much slack. You can call for slack over and over again, but eventually there is no rope left. Do you then pull hard on the rope? This can pull you off balance and cause you to fall. It could pull the belayer off balance and cause him to fall, which would be disastrous for you the climber because the falling belayer will more than likely pull you off the face and then you can both fall together. (Gory, gory what a helluva way to die. . .) It can also pull the end of the rope out of the belayer’s hand and no one falls, but now you are no longer connected. If that is the case, who is at fault? The belayer who could not keep hold on the end of the rope or the climber who kept asking for slack and never giving any back, or climbing down from his position?
The fact of the matter is, in life as in climbing, we need our safety lines. We need someone to belay us as we climb the obstacles of life.
But, for better or for worse, I am off belay.