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June, 1974

Second Man on a String

You can look down between your boots and see air: for a rock climber, that's the beginning of peace.

by John Skow

Dawn broke a gorgeous blue, with white lettering. The lettering spelled--just a moment, back into the mountain tent for my glasses, which I had stored in one of my sneakers-- H. E. EVANS MIRACLE REVIVAL. The background for this disturbing message, the blue that filled my field of vision, was a huge, repainted school bus. It was parked seventy-five feet away, and its curtained windows suggested that it was inhabited.

The bus had not been there when we wheeled into the Mouth of Seneca, West Virginia, camp-ground at midnight, late in June. At any rate we had not seen it, but it surely was there now, ready to burst and spray holiness from here to the Ohio border. A big satin flag hung nearby promised a "Holy Ghost Revival, 7:30 Nightly, Salvation & Healing for the Soul." I knew something about Pentecostal Bible-shouting, and I did not like the way this rock-climbing expedition was beginning.

I woke my friends and told them that we were under siege. The news charmed them. Mike is a Jew, raised in Yonkers, and Felix is a wayward sprig of Massachusetts Protestantism. Neither had any notion of the stupefying decibel level of new-time oldfangled religion. They are city men from Washington, D.C.: Mike an obscure government lawyer (which is to say one not involved in Watergate) and Felix an officer of the Superior Court. To them the threat of a revival meeting was the kind of fascinating country curiosity for which all city men thirst, like the hand-cranked pay phone, whose number is 14, outside Buck Harper's general store.

Moreover, they said, the alternative to this private campground, which cost twenty-five cents a night if you could find Buck Harper to pay him, was a vast and uninviting public area now being taken over by Smokey Bear. Smokey was building an expensive, round, glass-and-steel "climbing center" across the road, just below the Seneca outcropping we had come to climb. Mike and Felix, who had been climbing at Seneca long before Smokey learned to tie a butterfly knot in a kernmantel rope and clip it to a carabiner, seemed morbidly depressed by this evidence of progress.

For two or three years now, they said, Smokey had been moving into the Seneca Rocks. This spectacular complex of quartzite cliffs jutting out of West Virginia pastureland has become one of the major climbing areas in the East, perhaps as well known as New Hampshire's Cannon Mountain and New York's Shawangunks. The trouble with Smokey was that he would bring more people to the rocks, which already had so many climbers that the principal danger on weekends was being clunked by stones and climbing gear dislodged by fools overhead.

And, my friends went on gloomily, the people attracted by Smokey's rustic signs, log-edged parking lots, and woodsy his-and-hers latrines would be inept and leaderless climbers. The new popularity of climbing had brought enough ineptitude to the rocks as it was--and, largely as a result, rescuers had had to bring down three dead bodies and five live ones in the past eighteen months. A great many rules would be necessary, painted on those brown log signboards that Smokey carves so well. Something like "No Granny Knots, No Sneakers, No Nude Climbing, No Dogs Except on Belay, No Climbing Unroped, No Pitons, Helmets Must Be Worn, Climbing Hours Six A.M. to Eight P.M., Rocks Closed November to May, All Climbs Must Be Approved by Climbing Ranger, No Rock Climbing While Stoned." On balance, it seemed better to avoid Smokey while it was still possible. Carefully, so as not to rouse the sleeping revivalists, we dug our Coleman stove out of the car and made coffee.

Felix is lean, tough, bald, slight of build. He is forty-three years old, an old Yosemite hand who has climbed for twenty-five years, mostly in the United States, but also in the Alps, India, and Pakistan. At one time he thought of making a career as a mountain guide. As a child he was severely ill with polio, and he spent a year in an iron lung. Now he wears a steel brace on his left calf, riveted to the heel of his climbing boot. This no longer seems to me the most interesting of Felix's originalities, but it causes some stir among climbers who don't know him when, on toes and fingertips, and climbing in the exposed lead position, he begins to thread his way up a difficult face. Like other fine mountaineers I know who have reached the age of reason, he did things as a young climber that now seem daft to him. In his current phase he is cautious and cerebral, a splendid teacher.

Mike is ten years younger, short, quick, muscular, and fiery. He has too much physical energy for a law office. Twenty years ago his sort raced Austin Healeys on weekends. He began to climb three years ago, practicing with Felix on small cliffs along the Potomac. Now he spends all of his spare time climbing, or thinking about climbing. The existential act of inching up an overhang on a vanishing crack has seized his mind and shaken it. He knows a lot about gear, and a lot about technique. His own skill already approaches the expert class, but he has not yet done any big, important climbs. He regards Felix with awe, but knows that at some point he must break away from his teacher. The prospect frightens him a little.

I am forty-one and reasonably fit. In the last five years I have done a fair amount of expedition climbing, which is mostly walking, and once, loony from lack of oxygen, I hiked to 24,500 feet in the Hindu Kush region of northeastern Afghanistan. That counts for a few points when I am drinking beer and exchanging mountain lies with some scoundrelly friend, while his wife smiles tensely and hopes that we don't start pulling out maps. (The maps mean some new expedition is at the back of our adolescent minds, and when they come out wives stop smiling. I don't blame them.)

The fact is, however, that I have not progressed much past the beginning of learning to be a rock climber. I have a pair of nicely scuffed climbing boots. Heights don't make me dizzy. I can tie a bowline. Beyond these I have no gifts to offer the frowning rock faces.

The matter of my own stringy height, my friends have told me disapprovingly, is ambivalent. I can reach handholds that Mike and Felix can only brood about. But they have taken special care to point out that there are certain situations, usually involving low holds and bulging overhangs, where a tall man's behind is derricked out so far into thin air by his great awkward legs that his own leverage peels him off the rock. At this point, they say, solemn as beadles, the tall man's excessive mass, accelerating at thirty-two feet per second per second, builds up so much extra momentum that safety margins are exceeded. The shock through the length of his safety rope rips the mooring pitons from the rock. The giant's loyal short colleagues strain to hold the rope, but fail, and he arcs out, spinning, into the abyss.

Felix reviewed all of this again in a friendly way, then threw the second half of his second cup of coffee into the weeds. Well, he asked, what were we waiting for?

Between Mouth of Seneca, the crossroads town, and the startling blade of rock that rises above it flows the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Its seventy-foot width is spanned by a suspension bridge, put together long ago with some telephone poles for uprights, four cables, a few slats, and some pieces of plywood. The bridge is motionless in repose, but moves like a dying snake when stepped on, and it serves two purposes: to let climbers cross the river, and to discourage picnickers from doing so. The climbers are gloomily certain that Smokey Bear will replace the bridge.

Beyond the river is the scree, loose, sliding rock broken off from the cliffs above, fingering down through the trees. We scrabbled up the scree for twenty minutes, feeling the morning's heat for the first time, then stopped to sort out our packs at a flat place called Luncheon Ledge. Here farmland, river, trees, and scree were finished. We leaned to rest against the vertical rise of the cliff.

We carried water, lunch, iron, and gorp. Gorp is a secret strengthening mixture favored by climbers and other desperate types, consisting of peanuts, raisins, dried apricots (optional), and bittersweet chocolate bits. Climbing ropes are usually of the kernmantel type--woven nylon sheaths surrounding a nylon core, eleven millimeters in diameter and 150 feet long, with a breaking strength of several thousand pounds. We had three. Iron is the collective term for pitons (variegated steel or light-alloy spikes to be driven into cracks), angles (wide pitons), bongs (wide angles), chocknuts (odd-shaped bits of alloy, threaded with nylon slings, that can be jammed into cracks in place of pitons), carabiners (metal snap-rings used to attach ropes to pitons or to oneself), hammers, and other gear. Iron in astonishing quantity is slung on loops of gaudily colored nylon webbing. These loops circle a climber's neck and one of his shoulders, so that the iron sags to waist level, tugging comfortably at the wearer's self-image, giving him a feeling of weight and purpose.

We stashed our packs and tied in to one of the ropes--Felix leading, route-finding, ready to bang in pitons with his stubby, heavy-headed hammer; I at the position of ignorance in the middle; Mike at the end, to offer me whatever psychiatry was necessary, and to pull out the pitons Felix had sunk.

Each of us had one additional duty: to take his turn at belaying the others. I had done my first rock-climbing with a remarkable Austrian mountaineer named Marcus, and on our first pitch, or rope-length section of cliff, he had said very quietly, "Du haltest meine Leben." Marcus was not given to unnecessary eloquence, and what he said startled me. But he was right. It is the strongest of metaphors and the simplest of bald truths: each climber holds his partner's life. Climbing partnerships are not entered into lightly.

The climber does not budge till the belayer yells that he is ready and at that point the belayer must be prepared to hold the climber, no matter how suddenly and sharply he falls, and no matter for how many minutes he must be held. Arm strength alone can't do this, especially if the arms are tired after several hours of climbing, but if the belayer winds the climber's safety rope around his own back, the friction of rope against cloth is enough to do the job fairly easily.

The belayer pulls in rope as the climber below him moves upward, limiting the distance of a possible fall to the rope's few inches of slack. The leader cannot be protected so well--he is belayed from below, and his safety rope runs up through carabiners clipped to the pitons or chocknuts he has set. If he has climbed ten feet from his last piton and loses his hold, he must fall ten feet past the piton, and then another ten--the length of the untethered part of his rope--before the belayer can begin to stop him. The rule is not hard to memorize: The leader shall not fall.

We moved up an easy path and around the back of the cliff structure. Unlike most cliffs, the Seneca formation has a front and a back. Hold two hands side by side and edge to edge, fingers together, and then imagine the fingers rising to a height of about three hundred feet from a landscape of rolling woodland and pasture. The west face of this high, narrow, ragged ridge is in view of the river, the highway, and Smokey Bear's half-completed climbing center. Our path, accurately labeled the Old Ladies' Route, led up a crack between two of the huge quartzite fingers, and continued across an easy traverse onto the east face.

Climbs usually done with the help of ropes are graded from 5.0 to 5.9, and this one was a lowly 5.1. Even I had wandered up far harder pitches unroped and alone, but none of us had been in the mountains for a few weeks, and it seemed possible that important nerve ends might have been dulled. The mildness of the ascent did not shame me; for weeks I had held in my hands nothing more tangible than the scribbled-over typescripts of magazine articles, and the warm rock under my fingers felt solid and good. There is a point on the Old Ladies' traverse at which you can look down between your boots and see air, and for a climber this is the beginning of peace.

Roosting on the knife-point of Seneca's South Peak, we ate gorp and admired Germany Valley, a highland pasture hidden from the road that does, indeed, look like one of the soft Alpine meadows of Bavaria. The actual Alpine meadows won't exist much longer, I suspected, because the farm boys who should be scything the grass are all in Munich working at the BMW factory, and I wondered looking down between my dangling boots at Germany Valley, who had bothered to mow this inconvenient field, and for what reason.

We rapelled off the South Peak to a handy ledge. Rapelling is, in visual terms, the most dramatic maneuver in the mountaineer's repertoire: a spider-like descent on a doubled rope. Photographers love rapelling shots, because there is a lot of photogenic air on all sides of the intrepid descender. The ratio of apparent danger to real danger in rock climbing is, as Felix had admitted to me, satisfyingly high. The reader is urged to remember, when he sees a photo of some tiger rapelling, that a healthy six-year-old girl can be taught to perform the stunt.

Still warming up slowly, like elderly croquet players, we did another and slightly harder climb called Conn's West. Then it rained. We jammed ourselves into a vertical crack near Luncheon Ledge. The crack was about a foot wide, and in it, in descending order and over a space of about eighteen feet, were Felix, Mike, myself, and our three packs. Water poured off Felix onto Mike, and off Mike onto me, wetting the pieces of salami we passed to each other. After a time we left the crack and skidded down the scree to our camp.

In the Mouth of Seneca campground there is a beat-up band pavilion, and climbers who have no tents sleep there. We spread our wet gear on the raggedy wooden bleachers to dry. A kid climber had arrived, a boy of about sixteen who had hitchhiked the two hundred miles or so from Athens, Ohio. He had started climbing eleven months before and already had accumulated at least eighty pounds of splendid equipment. He asked questions about our tents, our packs, and our ropes, and wistfully, wanting to be invited along, asked what route we were going to climb the next day.

Toward evening, after the rain had stopped, mud-splotched West Virginia cars began to cruise through the campground toward the H. E. Evans Miracle Revival. They would stop by the snow fence bordering the field where the revivalists had set up their stage and folding chairs. Sometimes the drivers would turn off their engines, sometimes not, but in a few minutes the cars would move on again, bellying through the puddles toward the highway. It was impossible to say whether the people driving in and out again were sightseers, or revival connoisseurs, or simply citizens who were afraid that the rain might begin once more. But when the squall of rock hymns ended and the sermon began, there were only four or five customers in the seats, and four trapped climbers in the band pavilion. H. E. Evans appeared. He was a tall, beefy man of about forty-five, and he wore a white shirt and black pants. Through the microphone his voice sounded harsh and full of resentment. He said, yelling, that it was a terrible thing to fall into he hands of an angry god.

Morning: up the scree again, glasses fogged in the green heat. Then out of the trees, clear of the world, and up a rising corner of cliff. Felix was improvising, following a route not in the guidebook. The climbing was harder. No supernatural moves were required, but often there was only one hold that would allow the route to continue, and concentration was necessary to figure out how to use it.

Climbing at this modest level is puzzle-solving. The journeyman rock-scrambler, standing in perfect comfort on a three-quarter-inch ledge, his hands solidly anchored by a finger or two, feeling quite jaunty because he has remembered to keep his weight away from the rock (so that his boots press firmly on his ledge) rather than to hug the rock (which would cause his boots to press outward and slide off the ledge)--this self-assured citizen sees a promising indentation that he can reach with the side of the toe of either boot. It is a chess problem: if he uses the left foot, there is a fine jug (a projection that gives an unshakable handhold) within reach of his right hand. But if he uses the jug, his right foot will be way out of position, scraping helplessly on a surface as slick as a refrigerator door.

All right, forget that, start with the right foot, but what happens then? (This deliberation is taking time, and fingers and forearms are beginning to feel the tension.) Oh, yeah, Felix must have used that fleck up to the left, he had to, he got up somehow. And what the hell, if I peel off he's got me on belay.

Second-man psychology: sloppy and comfortable. Some discomfort-loving part of me, probably the character flaw that got me into the mountains in the first place as I neared middle age, did not approve of being second man on a rope. I wanted to lead. Never mind that my technique regularly left me hanging at the end of a line like a salami in a butcher shop, while sweat popped out of the forehead of whatever suffering friend was pulling on the rope's other end to keep me from falling further.

We reached the Gunsight, a spectacular notch bisected by a thirty-foot gendarme which, from the Seneca valley, does look like the bead of a rifle's sight. I was full of plans and chatter, pointing out routes up the Gendarme (the sole whimsy in all of climbing nomenclature is that smallish columns standing alone like traffic cops are called gendarmes). My ambition was not well disguised, but it was ignored. Felix looked at me, smiled gravely, and said that we were going to do Triple S. He did not have to say that he would lead.

In the guidebook to Seneca Rocks, Shipley's Shivering Shimmy is listed between "Agony" and the "Horrendous Traverse" as a 5.8 ascent of 160 feet, "by common consent one of the classic climbs in the eastern U.S.A." The grading of rock climbs is a matter of hunch and feel and put-down-manship. Climbers have been known to make truly evil ascents by new routes, and then to grade them "oh, about 5.6." The put-down comes when another hotshot tries to get up the thing, and figures that if he is all bent out of shape on a 5.6 climb, he had better quit and take up bowling.

When the grading is accurate, 5.8 is too hard for me. Once or twice I have made a 5.7 move successfully after a good climber has demonstrated each step. On my own, I have found my way up 5.4 and 5.5 pitches without disaster. But 5.8 is supernatural. Wisely, Felix planned to cheat. The 5.8 grade for Triple S counts only when the thing is climbed free--which means when the climber's whole weight is on the rock the whole time, and not on a piton, sling, or safety rope. Felix, who probably could have done Triple S free, intended to turn the pitch into an aid climb. On the hard parts, he would carry his weight on two etriers, or small ladders knotted from nylon webbing.

Triple S follows the right-angle intersection of two sheer faces, one of which is called the Face of a Thousand Pitons, because the Tenth Mountain Division trained there during World War II and left a lot of iron behind. Iron in those days was actually made of soft iron, and when the pitons were driven into a crack, they bent, jammed, and stayed there. Modern pitons are made of steel, and most of them can be retrieved. Not all of them, however, and even pitons that are pulled out by conscientious and thrifty climbers abrade the cracks they are hammered into. The result is that the Seneca Rocks and the other great climbing walls are wearing out. There are climbers today, most of them very young, who will not use pitons. Since the chocknuts they use instead are less versatile and also less secure, their idealism limits the climbs they can do. It also limits their margins of safety by a degree that is alarming to the older climbers.

I belayed, standing on a broad, sloping ledge, and Mike stood nearby to watch as Felix worked up the crack. His pitons were going in well. They made a clear ringing sound, rising in pitch: "pock-puck-pick-pink-ping-PING." Suddenly, about thirty-five feet up, he yelled, "ROCK!" Holding the belay, I flattened myself against the rock wall, shielded by a slight overhang. Mike lunged for the same spot. Our shoulders banged together, and he staggered toward the edge of the ledge as the saucer-sized rock Felix had dislodged snicked by us. Mike kept his footing. We looked at each other. He and Felix are extremely careful climbers, and as a matter of course they had seen to it that I, as the belayer, was tied into the cliffside with a sling and piton. Now, without saying a word, Mike tied himself in too.

Felix made another ten feet, going more slowly, working much harder. Then rain began to fall hard. In two minutes he had rapelled off the face and was standing beside us. Leaving about $250 worth of equipment nailed to Triple S. we walked down soggily to the campground. Felix and Mike were uneasy about the ropes and iron. Not all of the new climbers were idealists. On an earlier visit to Seneca, they had cached their equipment halfway up a wall one night, and had recovered it the next morning only after chasing two kid bandits up a long, vertical face.

Several schoolboy climbers, not bandits but glossy suburban young, had arrived at the band pavilion when we returned. Like the first boy we had met, they were gloriously overequipped. Magnificent high-loft down sleeping bags, giant packs and frames suitable for an attack on Nanga Parbat. Bright lengths of nylon webbing in purple, green, and orange. Splendid light-alloy match holders. Glossy coils of new rope. Jumar ascenders. A bosun's chair, for resting while climbing El Capitan. Quantities of unscratched chocknuts. No pitons. Lots of chatter, scornful, anxious, rattling with brand names: "Kelty!" "Chouinard!" "Stubai!" (Chopped and channeled Fords. I thought to myself, mistily. Moon disks. Duals...)

One tall, weedy blond kid of about seventeen did have scratches on his gear. He and Felix recognized each other and exchanged a few words. They had seen each other practicing at Carderock, on the Potomac near Washington. Felix said the boy was very good. "He and some of the others scare me, though," he went on. "I've seen them go up crazy pitches without a rope, solo. They're too young to know you can get hurt."

The blond kid began an aid climb up the inside of the pavilion root. He clipped himself to a series of bright purple slings, looped over the rafters, as the other boys stopped jabbering and watched. He would be a fine climber, said Felix, if he lived to be twenty-five.

To no one except members of his own troupe, spread among the wet folding chairs to look like a congregation, H. E. Evans preached about the pleasures of the flesh, which he deplored, and whose ill effects he blamed mostly on women. He described with approval the death of Jezebel, torn apart by the dogs of Jezreel for defying the priests with her shamelessness. "And eaten!" roared H. E. Evans triumphantly. "Every! Last! Sinful! Morsel! All except her feet, which had carried her from the ways of righteousness! And her heart, which lusted after foah-nuh-cation! And her hay-unds..."

Mike and Felix had heard enough of country quaintness by now, so we got in our car and drove down the road for a while. After a few miles we found a launderateria, and we threw our wet climbing pants into a dryer and watched them spin.

The next morning we lazed around camp waiting for the rocks to dry. H. E. Evans walked by on his way to the crossroads store and nodded affably.

In the afternoon Felix finished nailing his way up Triple S. It was a complex, wearing job, worth doing because...

(There is no way to end the previous sentence in a manner that is satisfactory to climbers and understandable to non-climbers. "Because it is there," said Mallory, banging a gong that has resounded in the skulls of flatlanders ever since. The question was why he climbed his mountain. The answer was an Everest of pomposity. This is worth wondering about because Mallory is said to have been anything but a pompous man. A possibility, I think, is that what he intended to convey was, "Go away and stop asking good questions." The mountaineers I know, even such highly intellectual ones as Felix, have sharply limited patience with speculation about why they climb. "Sagst du, weil es freut uns!" said an Austrian friend irritably: tell them we climb because it pleases us. Flatlanders will be ready with murky psychological analysis, but the correct answer is irreducible: climbers climb for the same reason that smoke rises and poodles bite doormen. It is their nature.)

I followed Felix, not quite so cocky as I had been the day before. I was not really rock-climbing, merely rope-climbing on my etriers; handling knots, unclipping and re-clipping carabiners as I passed Felix's pitons over a rise of something more than one hundred feet. The physical effort required was only moderate and mostly unnecessary, caused by my clumsiness as etriers caught under my feet or on the rock sides of the corner I was ascending. The mental effort was intense. I had to ignore the gulf of air under and behind me, and the unsettling elasticity of one hundred feet of nylon rope, and to concentrate on making no move whose effect I had not worked out logically. There was a moment of stage fright halfway up, five or six stories in the air, when it was necessary to transfer from one belay rope to another. For an awkward bit of time my fingers could not remember how to make a figure-8 knot on a bight, something they have known since I was twelve.

Then, of course, the rope sorted itself into a proper knot, and I clipped myself to it and all was well. My movements became smoother as bits of technique began to make sense. In a few more minutes, after perhaps a quarter of an hour on the wall, I pulled myself over the brow of the face and thanked Felix for the belay. Enjoying the rough feel of the rock under me, I tied myself to a piton and lay back to absorb the sun. Mike clattered up the rope, pulling pitons and yelling. In a few minutes we were all sitting in a windy gap called Windy Gap, eating gorp and thinking well of ourselves.

Felix, who knew I wanted to write something about rock-climbing, apologized for not swanning off the cliff in a newsworthy leader-fall. I said I thought the material I had was OK. I remember thinking that rock-climbing was a cerebral, contemplative sport, something like golf, but without golf's damaging tensions.

When we got back to the band pavilion, the kid climbers were nowhere in sight. Then we looked up at the underside of the roof, and there they all were, clipped to the rafters and hanging like bats.

H. E. Evans' blue school bus was parked beside the road. The revival cannot have taken in enough quarters in the collection basket to fill the tank with gas, but the motor was running, and after a time the bus moved off in the direction of Ohio.


Copyright © 1974 by John Skow. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; June, 1974; "Second Man on a String"; Volume 233, No. 6; pages 48-53.

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