I am not a rock climber. My friend Scot has tried, to his credit, to convince me otherwise. Oh sure I’ll go to a local climbing gym and tire myself to exhaustion dragging my under conditioned carcass up a simulated rock wall from time to time. But that is the extent of my abilities as a rock climber. I have known and still know those that can make this sort of behavior look easy and graceful. In fact, Scot is one of them. He and his girlfriend Jess can almost run up a wall and I’m convinced that the only reason they don’t is to keep from making me feel bad (thanks Scot and Jess). So it was a mix of enthusiasm and dread I accepted and invitation from Travis, a friend of mine from Alpine training Services, to come to a climbing festival being held in Joshua Tree National Park on a weekend in May of ’09.
The invitation came down via e-mail in March and it only took me until April to talk myself into going. Don’t get me wrong, I am not afraid of climbing. In fact, I would be considered smarter if I were. I am, however, painfully aware that my complete lack of flexibility and balance are going to cause me to be as frustrated as a no-legged policeman watching a doughnut roll down a hill. But it would be a chance to catch up with some friends and besides – what’s the worse that could happen, right? I was pretty convinced that this would be the weekend that California decided to begin it’s ocean migration towards Hawaii, but barring better judgement I talked to Scot about it. He said he would go and bring Jess so I invited my oldest daughter Samantha (don’t call her that – EVER! It’s simply “Sam” – or else…) and sent word that we would be there.
Time flies when you’re having fun – or when you’re past the age of twenty-five. For me it’s the latter. Before I knew it, the time had come to get my gear in a pile and prepare to get on the road for California. I had never been to this part of California before and I was looking forward to seeing what all of the hype was about. Joshua Tree or “J-Tree” as it is often called, is a mecca for all things rock climbing in the southwest. When you say epic rock clmbing around here, the first thought from those that know are Yosemite, Joshua tree, and idyllwild, often in that order. J-Tree is over 800,000 acres of land where the only thing more plentiful than the climbing routes are the trees for which this place is named. The Joshua Tree was given it’s name by a group of 19th century Mormon settlers crossng the Mojave desert. The unique shape of the tree and its leaves reminded them of a story in The Bible about Joshua and how he would raise his hands toward the sky in prayer. The landscape in J-tree is unique to my experience. When you begin to travel through the park, you will see vast plains of the kind of low scrub you find in the high desert and Joshua trees growing up from it are the tallest plants by far. These plains exist between spired formations of fractured granite jutting from the earth, forming an almost alien landscape. It is a surreal beauty that is very distinct from other deserts you might see. If you were drugged, kidnapped, and suddenly found yourself here (and you had even vague knowledge of what a Joshua tree was), you would know exactly where in the world you were.
And did I mention the climbing routes? There are more than 5,000 named routes in J-Tree. That’s almost enough to keep you busy long enough for more granite to spring from the ground. Our plan was to hit the road after a short day of work. We wanted to get going around 4:00 to try to be at the group campsite by 9:00 after an anticipated 5 hour drive as estimated by Mapquest. Like many things in life, for instance like the childhood plan to be the first person to open a slurpy stand on the moon (could happen), this plan went slightly awry. We didn’t leave until around 6:00 in the evening. traffic was bad, we needed food, blah blah blah… Whatever. the point is 8:00 found us crossing the California state line and heading towards CA 177 north. It was a beautiful night like so many are in the desert. The moon joined us early in the evening and I’m sure we could have turned off the headlights and drove perfectly safely in the bright moonlight. Unfortunately law enforcement frowns on this kind of behavior and is all too happy to quash “driving under the influence of zen” with a healthy dose of what-the-hell-were-you-thinking-you-dumbass?
We arrived at J-Tree around 11:30 that night. It was still warm and we barely needed our headlamps to set up camp. We were all so excited we thought we would have a hard time getting to sleep. We were wrong. First light crept over the horizon just before five in the morning. By six the sun was shining through my tent. I rose and staggered out of the tent to admire the irony that of the three tents we set up the night before (Sam wanted her own space), mine was the only one that was not in the shadow of a large granite wall. I spent a little time reorganizing the messy packing job I had done to get us to where we were going when I watched a newer model gray Xterra roll up with the driver wearing a Cheshire grin.
It was Ted, a man Travis I had instructed in Canyoneering the year before. Ted had come to Arizona to take a trip through Salome Jug with me just a few weeks before. Ted is just over seventy years old and is a role model for how I would like to be when I’m his age – “Like Ted or dead” became the mantra as it turned out. He is a former professor from M.I.T. and still gets out to go backpacking regularly. He decided to try Canyoneering and fell in love with the sport. I was happy to see him. Like so many others, Ted likes to underestimate himself and his abilities. When I watch Ted his actions remind me of when I was just a boy near the beach at a lake not far from home. There were these little birds called Killdeer and they would build their nest in the sand. When you came too close, the mother bird would begin calling loudly and then feign injury or helplessness in order to lure you away and protect her eggs. I was very young and her ploy worked on me famously. If you don’t know him, Ted is like this little bird as he will tell you of is weakness and inability to do what needs to be done. He’ll tell you about his lack of confidence and ability but don’t fall for it – this man will make you look silly. I am wise to his tricks – besides – I don’t need anyone’s help looking silly. I can do that all too well on my own.
Ted has the classic “early to bed, early to rise” philosophy. by the time he found me just after six in the morning, he had already eaten and been on a hike checking out his surroundings. I have no doubt that if Ted had decided to take up football at his age, he would be equally successful in the NFL. Ted is crystal clear with his thoughts and feelings about things but says them in such a way that you don’t get offended. You always know where you stand with Ted. He is a genuine fellow with values of days long past. When I met him the previous fall I liked him immediately.
I wandered down to the next camp and said my hello’s to a groggy group of outdoor enthusiasts and professionals alike that were murmering about forgetting to turn off the moon the night before. References to the thirty days of sun in the Alaskan summer were made as well as a pot of liquid that looked like coffee but would be better suited for removing rust from old parts. The sun was up and soon so were Scot and Jess. Scot was busy making pancakes from a cheese whiz style can and Jess was feeding him Redbull (against medical advice. Scot needs redbull like a shrew needs crystal meth). Sam was lying in her tent calculating EXACTLY how long it would take her to prepare for the day as well as what steps could be omitted to provide just fourty-three more seconds of sleep.
The sun waited for no one and it wasn’t long before we were on the rock face lacing and building top rope anchors, playing with various pieces of protection (terminology used for the hardware climbers use to build anchors such as cams, stoppers, and nuts. Google climbing equipment – you’ll be amazed). The sun was hot and it didn’t take log to hit ninety degrees. Shade offered marginal comfort and lunchtime found us lounging in the shade of a large crevass like a bunch of lizards. The rest of the day found us on the wall climbing and laughing at ourselves and the countless stories told.
This is a hard post to write as the time we had was fantastic and the banter endless. There is no real beginning or end to the events of the day. They just seem to blend together. There was no real destination or conquest, we went up the wall and down again on progressively harder climbs until our muscles were fried and could climb no more. This post I think is written more for me than anyone else. I don’t want to forget the fun we had or any of the fantastic people I met or got to know a little bit better. After a long day of sun, climbing, and nearly endless laughter, we went into town where we had a dinner of mexican food (some of us would pay dearly for this the next day – namely those that were down wind of Darren) and went back to go to bed. Smores were on the itinerary but no one had the motivation. We were up again the next morning and out on the rocks deeper in the park that day climbing, practicing rescue techniques and advanced anchor systems until I said my good-byes to one and all as we loaded up to head back to where we came from. The drive was long and silent as the miles ticked away back to Arizona where the next day would find us resuming our lives where we left them. The drive went quickly for me as I allowed my mind to wander over the events of the weekend and smile all over again at the time we had.
I came to the festival looking to spend time with friends and maybe find a nugget or two of knowledge that can only be learned by being around those that do this kind of thing constantly. You can read in books all about the techniques and gear but the really valuable stuff comes when you’re sitting there watching a master at work and paying attention to the little things he or she does that they take for granted. I stopped Darren in mid sentence when he was explaining how to quickly equalize and anchor – an important piece of information – because he quickly flipped his hand almost unnoticeably and came away with a clove hitch. If you don’t climb or run canyons this means nothing to you but if you do, you can understand the value of tying knots or hitches one handed. He did it one handed and QUICK! I had to learn. I watched Travis as he belayed a climber and spotted for them on their route. It was not what he said, but also what he didn’t say that spoke volumes about what he was doing to balance assisting the climber as well as letting them figure things out for themselves to help them build the necessary confidence for them to take their sport to the next level. It’s these details, these little things that make you better and safer. It’s the funny story about a close call that carries within it the thinly veiled warning that makes you think about things that might not have occurred to you and will help you be a stronger, better climber, canyoneer, or even person.
I went there just to get away and see some friends. I went to take my daughter on her first real outdoor climb. I went to get Scot and Jess around some world class climbers and help them pick up some tricks and techniques to take their game to the next level. I left with knowledge, wisdom, and enough stories to entertain those around me for several weeks to come. I am always aware of how fortunate I am. If I am measured by the quality of those I surround myself with, then I am truly blessed with a reputation that far out classes my reality. From my friends In Michigan where I left to those I have made here and in California, I am lucky indeed.
To those I knew when I got there, Darren, Travis, Sandra, and Ted as well as to those I just met or got to now a bit better like Jonnie, Rob, Lisa, Mike, Brent, Brian, Donmienne, and Jon (I’m sorry Sandra, I never knew the name of the fellow that rode with you). Thanks for a great weekend. I’m sure our paths will cross again one day. The stories will flow like the waterfalls in Maui and the knowledge we’ll share like food at thanksgiving. We’ll speak of those not present and vow to pass on greetings to them when we see them again. If there is a heaven in the great unnkown after life, for me it will be like this but without an end.
The Sterling Ropes Chain Reactor is available in two versions – standard and Guide edition. While similar in design to the Metolius Personal Anchor System, this unit is made exclusively from Nylon and contains no Dyneema or Spectra. This removes the concern created by the use of these materials in the personal Anchor System as this unit can be repeatedly shock loaded without compromising the material strength (although if it is, you might want to re-evaluate your Canyoneering methods). The standard version is exceedingly strong but the guide version “maxed out” the load test equipment at Sterling Rope without breaking. The down side of this product? The loops are a bit wider than the Personal anchor System thus adding a nominal amount of weight. It also seems to be a touch shorter than the Personal Anchor System.
I use this device as an extension for my rappel device, a clip-in point for an ascender, as well as a clip-in point to the anchor to keep me safe while I rig my rappel device and perform my final safety checks. There are many uses for this and the list is only limited by your resourcefulness (and practicality). This piece of gear is a staple on my harness and I have used it for everything from casual rappelling to rescue situations where it was necessary to clip into the patients belay loop and cut the rope above her to get her free (not recommended without A LOT of training!).
Although it is highly unlikelyto be an issue, in certain circumstances Dyneema or Spectra can lose most of their strength if it is shock loaded or severely stressed even one time. Canyoneers don’t generally place these kinds of loads on their equipment and even many rock climbers aren’t likely to shock these materials to this point. However in the interest of playing it safe, I would rather avoid these materials in my gear if at all possible. Since Nylon can be loaded and shocked repeatedly with little or no loss of strength, I have decided to replace my Metolius Personal Anchor System with the Sterling Ropes Chain Reactor.
The Black Diamond ATC XP is a belay device based upon the trustworthy ATC with the notable exception of having additional friction ridges cast into one side of the device. These ridges offer more control over the person being belayed by allowing the belayer to lock own the rope with very little effort in the event the climber should fall. There are many rappel devices that look and function similar to the ATC XP and I don’t really know who pioneered this design but for the sake of keeping it practical (and simple), most of the belay/ rappel devices of this design will have similar characteristics. Since this is a Canyoneering post, we will look at the ATC XP as a rappel device.
This unit has basically four modes of use: single line high friction, single line low friction, double line high friction, and double line low friction. In the high friction mode, the friction ridges will be on the tail side of the rope allowing the person on rappel to pull the rope into the ridges to control the descent as necessary. In the low friction mode (with the ridges facing away from the tail of the rope), it is much the same as a traditional ATC. Since the design of this product is based on rock climbing, use of any rope thicker than ten millimeter will result in a very slow – if not painfully slow – descent. For this reason, our evaluation will be done with Sterling Ropes HTP super static in 9mm. This is a polyester sheath/ polyester core dry treated rope that works well with Canyoneering. For the ease of photos, I have opted not to show it in double line configurations.
In single strand high friction mode, this device is among the easiest to manage. The descent is extremely controllable and little strength is needed to stop. This is my preferred rappel device to use with new Canyoneers as it’s high friction and slow predictable descent characteristics can help calm quivering knees.
If you want to speed up your descent and add a bit of versatility, simply flip the device on the carabiner and feed the rope through In single strand low friction mode. The device becomes noticeably faster yet control seems to be a bit smoother (see summary). Canyoneers that anticipate being in a cold waterfall might appreciate this mode of operation as you can move a little more quickly when you need to maneuver behind or around rushing water quickly while still maintaining full control.
Summary: Overall I really like this little device. It is an excellent choice for beginners as the high friction mode takes little strength to maintain total control of the rope. The only issue with this device is when using the high friction setting, it is sometimes hard to find the “sweet spot” when feeding the rope into the device. Because of the great grip on the rope, you have to give a little more slack than with other devices to get moving, then the device takes up the slack a little quicker than you might be feeding it and the rope sinks into the friction ridges again causing you to bounce slightly. This is more noticeable on ropes with higher static elongation properties (above 7%). The cable that comes molded with the device is a nice touch, however if you don’t pay attention to the ATC XP while you are coming off the rope, it is still easy to lose. Some canyoneers I know will tie a small section of thin cord to the cable of the ATC XP to make sure they don’t lose it. I generally don’t advise this as there is enough to keep track of near your rappel device and another cord is an un-necessary risk of tangling. Still, the control offered by this device has earned it a place on my harness as a competent rappel device and an excellent choice for novices as well.
The Pirana is a rappel device manufactured by the Petzl corporation. It is a versatile unit with design options for no less than four different friction settings as demonstrated by the manufacturer. It is the incorporation of the necessary horns and rope channels into the design that give the Pirana its’ distinctly unique shape. It is a lightweight unit made from aluminum that retails at most places for around thirty five dollars. We had difficulty locating one at first but after a brief search managed to acquire one at a local Sport Chalet. Petzl recommends the use of this product on rope between eight and thirteen millimeter diameter. We tried it on various friction settings on eight, nine, and thirteen millimeter ropes in wet and dry rappels to evaluate the performance of this little device. The first thing noticed is an interesting little quirk about its preference for Petzl carabiners. It’s design features a plastic bushing that essentially traps the device on the ‘biner so it will not drop off when removing the rope from the device. This requires the carabiner to fit tightly into the device. Petzl recommends the use of their Attache or William carabinerswith the Pirana and we would agree as these seem to be the only carabiners that fit the hole properly – if at all.
For ease of writing as well as ease of reading, the friction settings in this article will coincide with the pictures and will escalate numerically as the friction increases. For example, friction setting one will be shown in picture one and will be the lowest friction setting the device is designed for. Friction setting two will be picture number two and will be the next higher friction setting on the device – all the way to the highest setting shown in picture number five. For testing purposes, we used the least expensive static rope that was readily available to us that is specifically designed around rappelling. In this instance this is the Sterling Ropes H.T.P. rope in a 9mm dry treated super static. This rope is a polyester on polyester kernmantle design rope with good wet and dry properties. This evaluation is intended to give you an overview and basic working knowledge of this rappel device. It is not intended to instruct you on it’s use or substitute for proper training. All information contained in this review is for you to use at your own risk. Opinions vary and references to personal ability and angle of rappel are subjective. With that said…
Friction setting one is a fast setting with similar properties to a figure eight. With our test rope this setting is best used on a moderate angle rappel (numerically less than 60 degrees) for the average user to easily maintain control.
Friction setting places the rope behind the lower horn on the left side of the device (in the right handed rappel position). Friction setting two was much better and required a significantly lighter grip to keep your speed under control. It is still potentially a “fast” rappel but most can maintain control without too much effort at higher angles (60 to 80 degrees). long rappels or those that require tricky maneuvering might want to go to the next setting though.
Setting number three on this device placed the rope behind both lower horns and was extremely controllable, offering smooth rope feed characteristics on high angle to free hanging situations. This setting is still manageable on lower angles but a little finesse is sometimes needed to keep the rope flowing smoothly under these conditions.
Setting number four is the highest friction setting with the rope having to be basically fed through on all but free hang situations. This setting wraps the rope around both outer horns and is good in situations where you have a heavy pack or are rappelling through a waterfall and your footing is very uncertain. Be aware that under this setting you must keep light tension on the rope at all times in order to keep from allowing any slack in the rope from slipping off the upper horn of the device. This is extremely rare to the best of my knowledge I have only heard of it once and my source was prone to exaggerate) but it could be possible under some circumstances. The nice thing about friction setting four is it is applicable on the fly. You can be running any of the aforementioned three settings and apply number four on top of them at anytime during the rappel. This versatility is comforting if you find out mid-way through your rappel that you didn’t set up enough friction when you “got on the rope”. It is not difficult to do but practice this maneuver close to the ground first to get the hang of it before it counts.
Summary: This little device proved to be versatile and sturdy as it would be expected to be from a company such as Petzl. Petzl products always come with detailed instructions and diagrams and the Pirana is no exception. The ease of use, versatility, as well as the light weight and design features definitely deserve our recommendation as a must – have rappel device. The tight fit onto the carabiner means you are less likely to lose it when coming of rope with wet, cold, stiff hands or when entering a pool of water. I have been using this little device for a number of years. I started this review long ago and just got around to finishing it. The information has been updated and the pictures are recent in the interest of keeping current. I have used the Pirana on ropes ranging from 8mm to 11mm, on polyester, nylon, and aramid. It has also been run in a double line configuration (not shown) and is now my preferred rappel device.
Over the past year I have had some contact with a new satellite messenger called SPOT //www.findmespot.com). It is not a true PLB as I have found no information that would indicate it transmits on the analog SAR frequencies but it does have some very interesting characteristics that held my attention long enough to decide to try it.
First a little back story. In November of 2007 I purchased a Terrafix 406 from ACR. This is a very high quality GPS integrated PLB (Personal Locator Beacon). One of the industries best. I paid nearly $700.00 for it (and it’s worth every penny). In January of 2008 SPOT came out with their satellite messenger (not an emergency PLB) for around $150.00. Wow that’s much easier on the budget – what’s the catch? There’s a yearly subscription that runs between $99.00 and $160.00 per year depending on which options you choose. Granted, that’s just over ten bucks a month, but it can sting a bit when you pay it in one lump sum. What you get for that subscription is a very interactive way to keep track of where you are. It offers you the ability to check in with people you have listed on your account, offers the ability to send a general request for help, as well as a 911 message to local authorities and SAR teams. The additional costs are for rescue insurance (about $8.00) that will cover up to $100,000.00 in rescue costs (that you hopefully never need) and a tracking option where it will send a blip about every ten minutes that is viewable on a web page provided by SPOT so others can track your progress. This is the other $50.00.
I have had it about a year and I have been fairly impressed. It links directly with satellites – no cell service needed so it works even in the most remote back country or even on the water (it is waterproof to IPX 7 standards and even floats). I have had good communication for the most part. It does require a reasonable view of the sky (around 30 degrees) so if your GPS doesn’t get a signal, neither will SPOT. This is the main difference between this and a true PLB. A PLB signal goes out no matter what. As I live in AZ, I have yet to see how SPOT does under cloud cover. I guess I’ll have to wait for the next monsoon season… I have had less than spectacular results with this while Canyoneering, but in all fairness to the device, it was never really intended for this kind of environment. The only downside to this is I would not get satellite communication to signal for help should it be needed. However if I send my “I’m ok” message before I enter the canyon (which I always do), then those concerned can look at the website and see where this message was sent. This will give them a pretty good idea of where to start their search should I become over due. Those who would contact authorities would also know me well enough to tell them to find the deepest, darkest hole or crevice and start looking there.
The interactivity of Spot is what I like the best. On my ACR unit, I won’t ever pull it out unless I need it. And then it’s only when the situation is truly dire. SPOT lets me tell people when I get to my destination, track where I am, and even to ask for assistance if I need to without a full scale rescue. There have been many rescues credited with this device but it’s no substitute for a knowledgeable companion, proper preparation, and letting someone know where you’re going and how long you intend to be gone. If you feel you will be placing yourself in truly risky circumstances where an accident would leave you in a place where you’re not likely to be found until rising water levels from Global Warming float your bones and backpack to the nearest beach, you may want to consider purchasing or renting a bonified PLB.
The only other draw back to this unit is it requires Lithium Ion batteries only. If you are using the tracking feature, you can expect them to last about 24 total hours. If you just use it to send your “I’m ok” message and continue keep it on to send the possible emergency message should it be needed, they will last a bit longer (I don’t know how long exactly as I don’t ever use mine this way). lithium batteries are fairly pricy considering I go through them at a rate of a set of them over the course of two long days of canyoneering or hiking. Fortunately it only takes two. The other drawback is trying to switch from the “I’m ok” message transmission to the tracking transmission. You have to wait for it to either complete the twenty minute cycle needed to ensure the “I’m ok” transmission went through or you can wait five minutes after activating the “I’m ok” message, turn it off, then turn it back on and enable the tracking feature. I would like to see this remedied on future units but all in all it is a great product at a reasonable price.
This pretty much sums it up. For more clarification on the unit, it’s features, and subscription options, visit the SPOT website posted at the beginning of this article.