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Rock Climbing : Articles : General : Learning to lead, old school.

Learning to lead, old school.

Submitted by floridaputz on 2011-11-23

Rating: 12345   Go Login to rate this article.   Votes: 2 | Comments: 11 | Views: 8619

by Tim Shea (Floridaputz)

Rockclimbing Article Image1_large
Taylor Falls, MN
Photo by Jvstin

A day of climbing is supposed to be finished after a few pictures of beer and a mongo burger at the mug and jug. Maybe a game or two of pool. Oh, and if you are lucky a cute girl will come in and sit down at the bar and you can spend the next few hours trying to make an introduction. But most nights the girl never comes, the beer is soon gone and there is just a little too much daylight left to call it a day.

My climbing friends and I would spend the long summer days at Taylor Falls, Mn. climbing the humble rocks, turning even the smallest problems into great adventures. We practiced and fantasized about the big climbs out west that we would climb someday. We would earnestly work on all the climbing techniques that we would need to progress and become great climbers. We emulated the smooth movement and patience of the skilled climber, making no mistakes. We would chimney, crack climb, surmount overhangs and finesse our way up blank faces. We hoped that this would later make us successful climbers in the years to come.

Any rock climber from Minnesota has probably found a day or two when this just got downright boring. After climbing everything in site many times, our enthusiasm would wane, and we would call it a day and resign ourselves to go to the bar and start drinking. Inevitability, after a few beers and a mongo burger the stories of local and national climbing legends would cause our imaginations would run wild. We wanted to boldly endeavor damn it! Anything could happen at this point.

Lead by the older guys I learned two reoccurring theme’s of the drunk climber. One crazy game was to portage a canoe up Sonny & Juanita. This climb was an open book formation up a small rock cliff always crawling with beginners. The other was practicing “multi pitch” climbing by making 3-4 hanging belays on this same 50 ft cliff. Each leader perhaps going up 10-20 ft, and then traversing, before setting a belay and bringing the whole gang up to the belay. The Sonny & Juanita area has perhaps the most climbed beginner’s routes in Minnesota. If you have been climbing here, it was probably your first climb.

Therefore it was always the target of our shenanigans.

At this time I was still a teenager having recently completed a 5 week rock climbing course that finished with climbing the Durance Route on Devils Tower. So after that I decided that I was “in” for bigger things. All I had to do was learn how to Lead Climb. I was climbing with some local guy’s from Minneapolis, when I was somehow introduced to a high school kid named Dave Pagel. I mostly remember Dave because he was still in High school, and he had the fire to be a great climber that impressed me. Dave already knew all the great places to go and the great climbs that were “must do’s”. I would have to pick him up at his parent’s house and do the driving for our weekend forays. Dave went on to become a great climber and climbing writer. He has been published in Climbing Magazine and wrote a guide book on the N Shore of Lake superior.

Through Dave, I met the person who I consider my lead climbing mentor. He taught me how to lead, not so much the fine points of placing gear, but the mental aspect of the game. He was cool. He knew the mindset of a real climber. He demonstrated what it was to be non plussed by danger. He had an icy cold approach to the dangers of leading. Funny, I distinctly remember him but don’t quite remember his name. Dave spoke in hushed tones of respect to me when he was around. He had taken a lead fall In the South Dakota Needles and shattered his ankle. Hideous scars criss crossed his broken stump. He walked with a pronounced limp, he had been robbed of his big chance to be a serious climber by his devastating injury.

That summer he was available to learn from, yes, you could call him our mentor. We would show up on Saturday and he would be there. Not by prearrangement. We hoped he would be there and we would look for him. So for a period of time that summer he seemed to be there often. He was tan and fit, he hiked fast. His limp slowed him some. Each time we set up a top rope we would watch him squeeze his gimp foot into his EB’s, He would lace them very tight to give him a chance with his bad foot. It would bend in all sorts of contortions, unnatural positions. However, he used it with the grace and touch of an experienced and smooth climber. He always wore a bandana, and had a goatee. Everything he owned, from his day pack, to his rope, to his gear, was cool. This was the “right stuff” to have. He crouched down when he was ready to share some important advice. We would listen closely. He would tell us many stories of bold climbing adventures. He spoke with hushed tones and great respect when talking about the 3 Minnesota climbers that had died from a fall off El Capitan’s Nose, back it the late 70’s. They were silmu-raping off a webbing anchor when they fell to their deaths from 1200 ft. It was my first experience of climbers discussing other’s mistakes so we could learn from them. The newspaper compared their fall to the height of the IDS skyscraper in Downtown Minneapolis.

So back at the Mug and Jug, drunk and satisfied with a Mongo Burger, we realized our early exit from climbing that day was weak. We had deiced on a new plan of action. Leaving the bar, we were blinded by the bright sun getting very low on the horizon. We headed back to sonny and Juanita, with the plan to “multi pitch” the climb. Of course we were talking about climbing the world’s biggest climbs over beers and the brave climbers who were famous for scaling them. But, Sonny and Juanita in the dark would just have to do.

Earlier in the day I had confided to my mentor that I was ready to learn how to lead. I waited for a private moment and asked him if he would teach me. If I had to carry the pack and rope and buy the beers, so be it! So half drunk, in the sweet twilight, we plopped down the gear and checked out the cliff above. The mentor looks over at me and says, “You want to learn how to lead so you go first”. Suddenly, to myself, I’m thinking, what do I do now? I felt as though he had betrayed my secret in front of the others. This was almost like a priest shouting out your heartfelt confession. I meant I wanted to learn how to lead soon, not right this second. He starts pointing to a 5.8 called Bill and Tom. See that pine tree growing out of the wall, climb up to that, put a runner around it for protection, and traverse over and set a hanging belay. Cool I’m thinking, a hanging belay, I can do this. I have to do this ! In the back of my mind I thought to myself, that’s it, that’s how you learn to lead?

I started off so careful. I wanted to look every bit as smooth as the lead climbers I had seen in action. He had put the rack over my shoulder and I committed myself. I started lowly moving up, trying not to look scared. I was at about 25 ft up and I slung the pine tree. In retrospect I should have girth hitched the small tree near the base, instead I put the runner about half way up the trunk. Now I climbed out on the challenging face, further up and out I got until I was basically stuck. “You need to get some gear in”, I hear from below. I started fumbling with the rack, trying to put various pieces into the cracks without much luck. It was strenuous to hold on and I started to get a little gripped. My Right foot was on a key foothold and it started to shake. Soon I was quivering and my leg was shaking uncontrollably. My other leg started and soon my whole body was in terrible uncontrollable convulsions. I was off. Falling through the air I screamed towards the deck, the runner on the tree started to take my fall, but with the runner slung so high, the tree bent like a fishing rod and lowered me to the ground with 6 inches to spare. I was shocked. I stood up and checked myself, no worse for wear. Everyone was looking at me. They were probably thinking how lucky I was. Well, after that my mentor took over the sharp end and showed us the proper way to do things. We finished the climb with out incident.

By the end of the summer I had purchased gear and started leading and started to get the hang of it. I knew one thing from that first lead. I was never going to fall again if I could help it. Over the years I have often heard more experienced climbers talk about “surviving the learning years” I think that has to do with wanting to learn how to be a climber so bad that you blindly thrust your self in harms way and hope for the best. As an experienced climber I never do this anymore. I prefer to be totally prepared for my risks. I think that a lot of the people that are attracted to climbing today are like me, something of a loner. I like to learn things on my own. But where climbing attracts colorful individuals, it is mostly practiced safely with other partners. We must force ourselves to go get the proper instruction. And ask for the information we need to prepare ourselves. Don’t be too proud to ask a mentor how to do something. The best approach to learning is counter intuitive to the rugged individualist. Ask those who know. Take good advice. You might be surprised that it can help you survive your learning years.


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11 Comments CommentAdd a Comment

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A day of climbing is supposed to be finished after a few pictures of beer and a mongo burger at the mug and jug.

I always take pictures of my beer also, because I am a massive TOOL.
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Sounds like you have a shitty "mentor".... The way you described this he put you on a 5.8 with a 25 foot runout to the first pro, and he let you sling the tree wrong.... this is not "old school" this is stupid.... Unless you embellished to make it sound more badass. Glad your still climbing after that but I would ditch that "mentor" and get a real one.
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I agree with metalhead you have a shitty mentor. sounds to me like as bad ass as he is he has made some stupid mistakes and was lucky enough to only have a smashed ankle. Dude you are a bigginer, place gear; sew that crack up with every piece if you must. And the learning years never end, I have been climbing for 18 years and I still hear new and creative ideas that I can use, but the best tool is your brain dont be afraid to use it. some times its ok to say Im not feeling it let go get a beer.
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So many haters clicking their keyboards! Great story mate! I too learned from "risky" old schoolers in NC back in th early 90's. It was the way things were back then. My mentors learned to climb in the late 70's when early nuts were as high tech as it got. We have a very safe way of learning climbing today but don't knock the old school please. Cheers! :)
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Why didn't you use the bomber bottleneck crack 15 ft off the deck as your first piece?
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and we all lived happily ever after after except jimmy. He lived but the ree will always be known as jimmies tree.
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Cool story would love to read more!
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i started climbing with an 8mil alpine rope, three non-locking carabiners, two lengths of webbing to tie swiss seats, and a sling to set up a top rope. we belayed each other by wrapping the rope around a biner a few times and hoping one or all of the coils wouldn't pop out of the gate. was it smart? absolutely not, but we had the desire to climb so we did it the best way we could figure out to do it, as did the climbers before us. climbing isn't a safe activity anyways and part of what makes it what it is is the possibility of death. as alex huber put it "from a purely logical point of view, it makes more sense to stay on the ground". so to all you pussies ragging on him for climbing recklessly, i recommend getting out of the gym and jumping on an old school run-out slab put up by the people that pioneered climbing, then decide if you know what climbing is really about. glad to read the story man
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I like the story, keep posting!
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1 out of 5 stars Dave, Dave, Dave that's all I ever hear and he's all over here.

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