Secrets I Was Never Told

By Bruce W. Smith

Ascending and negotiating long drops has always been one of the most thrilling parts of vertical work I can remember. Unfortunately, the pain of the ascent has always challenged my endurance. 39 years later, I've put together a list of techniques that limits the pain to a point of almost painless.

Painless Climbing!?!? "Tell me more!"

It was early March '98, I was in the shadow of my 50th birthday, 40 pounds overweight, out of shape and had planned to enjoy an entrance visit to Sotono de Las Golondrinas (1090' on the low side) the longest subterraneous free fall drop in the world

A group from the Czech Republic and a large hive of bees had taken up residency along the entire lip of the low side. The seven of us moved up and around to the right to a prominent tree that was dwarfed by a non-descript jungle around it This additional elevation convinced me that I would never see the bottom of this pit.

Polyester became our highway and one by one each one of us put on our gear and disappeared into the darkness. "Your turn," was directed to me and like I had planned to descend all along, I got on rope and enjoyed a very smooth one minute ride to the bottom.

Peer Pressure! "Oh sh--!" I said to myself, "What had I done?!" I was standing on 7 acres of guano looking up about 1150 feet listening to supersonic sparrows diving through the blackness in search of food, all the while, evading the parrots who were also searching for food-them! Occasionally, one could see a set of sparrow tail feathers sticking up out of the guano from one dive bomber who had miscalculated his dive pull-out.

I decided it was time to get real serious! What had I learned over the years that would allow me to reach the surface with some assemblage of dignity. The burrows at the bottom of the mountain were a remote option, however it would be closely associated with a loss of dignity-even disgrace!

Joe Ivy once told me the best medicine for the body was an I-V or continuous fluids. This had to be part of my plan. (1) Drink a gulp of water every time I stopped. Oxygen debt was a killer so (2) I decided never to get out of breath, that way, I would never have to catch it. Breathing restrictions all must be eliminated. (3) No belts whatsoever. No battery belts, no tight harness belts, nothing. When I sit down, it is important for waist girth to have a place to go other than up into my rib cage restricting lung capacity.

I had cloned myself a Forrest Harness (4). This harness supports its user under the thighs and hips and the fleshy parts of the buttocks. The waist belt serves only as a back support or balance component. This waist belt can be loosened or tightened as desired without the risk of disconnecting any important life support component.

A double chest roller would prove to be an important element of the climbing system. A Double Bungie Climbing System would be my elevator to the top, but with a balloon chest and other burdens of the flesh, sitting down to rest results in an immediate "uppsy-daisy" feet up and head down. (More lost dignity points) Snapping my QAS into the right roller of the Double roller Chest harness insured up-right resting.

Resting is important, If you're going to stop and rest, let's make sure it is a restful time. With belts and other girthing components, I have found myself breathing harder, light headed, and in the early stages of suffocation.

A helmet mounted battery pack was important (6), no waist belt supporting a battery. Harness became important (7). With the threat of Compartmental syndrome, I added pads to shoulder straps, chest roller belt, leg loops and the harness waist belt.

Positioning (8): I placed myself above my tandem partner. That way, I could raise and lower the chest roller from Adams apple to Belly's button and it would work the same. Surely, my lats under my armpits would give out and ache to intolerance if I was unable to raise and lower the chest roller as one by one of my back muscles gave up to the pain.

Technique (9): This was, by far, the biggest part of the equation. Putting all this into action into some sort of fluid non-embarrassing sequence was the challenge. But there was another significant technique that I'd only lately thought about and decide t materialize my concept into reality.

Everyone should climb with a rhythm or so we've always been told, but this time I let my muscles establish the rhythm. Just before the leg muscle burn, I determined I'd stop-remain standing for 5 to 10 seconds to let the toxic acidic, used-up blood leave my legs and find it's way to the blooding cleaning and refueling substations, i.e., kidneys, Lungs, spleen, and the liver and then I would sit down.

Levitation (10) Didn't I mention this yet? I was told in the end, I really wouldn't have to worry about 1 thru 9 because the majesty and grandeur of the pit would lift me through the blackness in some magical way.

No Cramps, No Aches,
No muscle burn, No exhaustion.

Sooner or later the inevitable came to pass. I was on rope. I took three steps. "So much for number 10. Levitation was not working!" I was facing hard work.

I climbed 30 cycles and sat down to rest while Becky attached below me. Bad move! My legs burned. I stood up. They hurt worse than when I sat down. Number 9 says wait 5 to 10 seconds. So I tried again. 30 steps-stand for 5 to 10 seconds, sit, gulp water, climb 30 cycles, stop-stay standing 5 to 10 seconds, then sit, gulp water, repeat, repeat. It was working. The legs stayed fresh and hard, Never loose your breath! Stop, but don't just plop down into your harness. Stay standing for 5 to 10 seconds, then sit down.

This is really working!
Set goals, keep a pace, keep a rhythm.
Count your cycles as you climb.
Stop and stand 5 to 10 seconds
before sitting and resting.
When you sit, take a gulp of water,
wait on your partner below. Repeat.

After 500-600 feet the chest and seat began to wear at the muscles certain muscles. So during resting periods, I loosened the chest and lowered it 2 to 3 inches. Becky's weight below me maintained my up-rightness regardless of where I placed it. Before it was done I wore my chest harness all over my torso and the next day, I had minimal muscle soreness or tenderness.

Looking across and down, I could see the Czech's low rig point in the moonlight telling me I was close. At the edge, I found I had plenty of reserve strength to negotiate the lip with confident moves. Over the lip--QAS in place--Step--Firma Terra--Ascenders off. I stood up to solid hard legs, no milky leg feeling, I experienced no cramps, no numbness, no aching, no exhaustion.

Yes, I was tired, but not embarrassingly tired. My triceps were sore from assisting my ascent with mini-pull-ups, overall, I dialed into a magic combination.

I took a Calcium tablet and Potassium tablet back at the car. I had gulped 1 1/4 quarts of water and had not dripped sweat on Becky (She especially appreciated that).

So what is the big secret?
  1. Drink a gulp of water at every stop.
  2. Don't get out of breath so you don't have to catch your breath.
  3. No belts. No breathing restrictions.
  4. A Harness that suspends from the leg loops.
  5. A double chest roller maintains uprightness during resting.
  6. Helmet mounted battery pack (no belts) for light.
  7. Harness padding.
  8. Top position during a tandem climb.
  9. Technique:   Wait 5-10 seconds before sitting to rest, set goals and count cycles.
  10. Levitation (over rated-It doesn't work that well).
Someone will ultimately say, Everybody knows all this, well, I'm here to tell you that these are secrets that I was never told all at the same time.


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