Urbanity on Ice

Learning the Ropes
  |  Gorp.com

As we're being outfitted with equipment, a couple arrives to make just such an ascent. By the time we've begun to our first practice steps, they've disappeared above. When they don't soon reappear in descent, Claude speculates."Are zey in zee bushes making cliff-top love? I don't know," Claude utters, his accent suddenly more French-accented and romantically lascivious. "Whenever my girlfriend climb, she get excited and want very much to make love." Aha! A compelling inducement for learning this sport.

Claude demonstrates how to tether the belay rope to our harnesses, and how to use the "air traffic controller" or ATC, a small metallic item with two tapered tube-like holes through which a loop of belay rope is forced. Should the climber fall, the person on belay need only twitch the rope back against the ATC. The rope stops flowing, and the climber stops falling. "It's called ATC air traffic controller because it controls the time and distance you fly if you fall. Very clever, yes?"

Kids as Young as Nine Can Do It

Claude teaches these skills and techniques to children as young as nine. Knowing that a nine year-old can do it is some comfort, although most nine year-olds I know are far more reckless than I am. Claude reports that L'ecole teaches more than 800 people annually, making it in his estimation the largest such school in the world. I'm basking in a new-found sense of reassurance as Claude scampers up the ice wall, dragging ropes behind him. Melanie expresses concern as Claude continues to climb. Despite my reassurances that he's not going much higher, he continues to ascend, moving beyond an angled shelf area, passing a bare spot, and finally arriving at a place that looks to be just shy of halfway up. Halfway. That would be about 50 meters. One rope length. About 160 feet. I'm afraid of heights, did I mention that? Did I mention that to Claude?

Claude descends, leaving the secure belay. This, he informs us, can sustain 4,000 kilograms of weight. I trust that's more than my 155 pounds. We are ready to climb. A gentleman always, I let the lady climb first. She does well, rising to about 25 meters before she tires. Now, it's my turn.

I trudge to the wall, lay my hands against it, and kick with my right foot. A certain suspension of disbelief is necessary here. You must trust that a few inches of toe-crampon will hold you. To do that, of course, they need a good purchase, which tempts you to kick as hard as you can. As with most athletic endeavors, however, technique counts more than strength, and kicking with a compact upward motion gets the job done.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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