Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Pole

By the age of nine hiking was a predictable process of pain everywhere for the first mile, thirst and chaffed hips from the pack belt for the next several miles, and turkey tetrazzini around a roaring fire at the end of the day. My interest moved to climbing some of the rocks that towered over us as we hiked. All I needed were ropes, carabiners, pitons, transportation to the mountains, and a group of people who knew what to do with the equipment to climb with. My Dad, his friends, and my older brother were mountaineers.

Perfect.

Every inch of our garage was covered in layers of climbing ropes, skis (downhill and cross-country), ice-axes, gaiters, pitons, carabiners, slings, helmets, packs, boots, crampons, tents, sleeping bags, bivouac bags, maps, and Velcro ties, enough equipment to scale Everest. Dad and I discussed the situation, he made the arrangements, and we ventured forth to conquer the Cascades.

Climbers travel in groups and do much of their work in cold weather. Often snow is still on the ground. There are people, of whom I am not one, who enjoy hiking in snow. They are the same people who claim the end of the trail “is just over the next ridge” and that the sheer rock face above you is “a piece of cake.”

We do not like these people.

We hiked across the snow to the base of the rock we were to climb, and while Dad tied the rope harness around my waist and legs and made sure all was secure the lead climber was sent up with a hearty series of questions and answers:

“Belay on?”

“On Belay!”

“Climbing!”

“Climb on!”

The lead climber was Dad’s friend Joe Kasuba. Mister Kasuba was Polish.

In addition to the belay-question-and-answer routine used during the climb there exist many other rules. The rules are designed to make a risky sport less risky, and to give a reason for the accidents that do happen. A very important rule is that the climber must maintain three points of contact on the rock at all times. (I must stress here that a rule is a rule, and that “points of contact” refers to hands and feet. Another body part that makes contact with the rock is not a legitimate point of contact. It is unsafe, and it is stylistically a kluge–an inelegant solution to the problem.)

Telling a fellow climber he is in violation of a climbing rule must be done for safety’s sake but requires a certain, how shall I say, discretion. A soft whisper in a colleague’s ear while no one is looking, perhaps. The whisper itself can be as informal as the relationship dictates. Many climbers are old friends and one might whisper to another something like “please get your great damn boot off the rope, Stew.”

Mister Kasuba climbed the rock face carefully and well. Seventy feet into the climb he found good hand holds above a narrow shelf of rock but the shelf was too high to step up onto it with his foot. I watched in horror as he put his left knee on the shelf, leaned forward, pulled himself up, and stood up.

In my shock I lost the good manners natural to all nine-year-olds and shouted “You’re not supposed to use your knee, Mister Kasuba!” My words echoed off the surrounding cliffs. “… your KNEE!… your KNEE… your KNEE.”

“That’s how we do it in Poland!” he shouted without a moment’s hesitation. Everyone laughed and I could only believe that it was so Mr. Kasuba would not feel ashamed about his blatant violation of the rules. I made a mental note to speak to him later to make sure he had taken the lesson to heart.

I climbed next behind Mister Kasuba and summited without once pretending my knee was a point of contact. (Those of us with some skill and self-discipline are wise to set an example for the others.) At the summit we signed our names in the summit book and shared Dad’s pepperoni stick (a necessary part of any climbing expedition). After the pepperoni we rappelled down the face and glissaded down the snow field. Glissading is the only good part about hiking on the snow, it means to sit down and make a controlled slide to the bottom of the snowfield.

I never did get the chance to speak to Mister Kasuba about the incident but the story has been told hundreds of times. I’m sure by now he’s learned the error of his ways.

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