October 10, 2004

Falling With Style

And I thought geocaching was fun.

This weekend I took advantage of the generous offer of a couple of local geocachers. “RLahti” and “Downy288” like to hang around on cliffs and hide geocaches there. But not many of the local geocachers had the knowledge and equipment to safely retrieve these caches.

To solve this problem they have invited the entire geocaching community to meet them at a cliff in Swansea for lessons in rappelling. This is where they like to test out their skills and equipment, and they can be found there fairly frequently when the weather is nice. They set up a scheduled clinic (known as an “event cache” to geocachers because showing up and going through the lessons qualifies you to log your participation in this event as a cache find.

This was my first event cache and my first time ever throwing myself off the side of a cliff. How did it go? Read on.

I got a little bit of a late start on the morning, but I was headed to the location at about 9:45 AM. If you’re going to show up late, show up with food to share. It’s a good motto. I grabbed a Dunkin’ Donuts “Box o’ Joe” and headed to Swansea.

So, what’s in a Box o’ Joe? It’s a box filled with coffee. It is also another box filled with coffee cups, stirrers and handfuls of sugar and sugar substitutes. Finally it is another cup full of cream. The second box fit in my pack, which meant I was left with the coffee in one hand and the cream in the other. And I had to find a cliff and hike up it. I had no hand for the GPSr.

Getting In

IMPORTANT NOTE: When carrying coffee, no hands free and no GPSr, stick to the trail. For some reason, I did not do this. Actually, I was familiar with the trail up to a point, but Bushwhack Burke decided to guess (wrong) and take another trail which turned out not to be a trail. But better than that, it “led” me to a small brook. The brook would have been a mere annoyance with two hands free. With no hands free and an uneven load it was nearly impassible. Some kind soul had placed a log across the brook. The log was now slick and the sole of my boot skidded across it when I tested the footing.


But I was too smart to turn back and try the actual trail. I was late after all. And if I made it across, it would somehow erase the silly mistake of going off trail at the wrong point. I made a few awkward attempts at crossing on the log but did not feel secure. Finally, I found a footing that would allow me to launch myself across and land on solid ground. I was a little worried about slipping, but there is always some risk in jumping.

I jumped, and planted one foot solidly in thick mud that yielded fully over my ankle. I immediately effected a makeshift second jump and then walked to a clear spot where I could assess the damage. Gear and food were intact. Boot was still dry inside, but covered with wet mud. I used some leaves to clean off my boot and jeans. Onward!

Another reason you follow the trail is that there are fewer cliffs to traverse. I’m OK with rocks most of the time, but I like to have my hands free. It wasn’t too long before I could hear voices in the distance, which is a sign better than any that a GPSr can give you. Up the big rock I went as I hard someone yell “Hello there!”

New Friends

That’s when I met a bunch of new folks. On the net, they’re known by their geocaching handles. “RLahti” and “Downy288” were hosting the event. I got to meet “juneebug” who was there, as I was, as a novice. Also in attendance was “Pandagram.” I offered them the coffee and then sat to listen to what was going on.

Ron (RLahti) was talking about safety and equipment as John (Downy288) continued to prepare the ropes for the 60 ft. descent. The ropes were attached to webbing which was securely wrapped around a couple of hardy trees that were growing out of the hill at the summit. John took me around and showed me how they had managed the anchors so that I could be comfortable with the preparations.

All the time, Ron stressed that they would not allow us to do things beyond what we had learned, and that we weren’t going near the cliff edge without being anchored to one of the ropes. Wire gate carabiners connected to some webbing were used as a safety for anyone approaching the edge or getting ready for a descent.

After witnessing a couple of descents, we were taken to an area where they’s set up a 10 foot drop for practicing. We donned some spare padded harnesses that they had brought. The harness is used to distribute your weight to your thighs and waist so that it is safe and comfortable when the rope is supporting you. Juneebug and I both learned how to thread the ropes (we were using double ropes) through an ATC belay device and secure it to our harnesses with a screw-lock carabiner. The carabiner which connects you to the rope has red markings on the screw lock to remind you that it needs to be tightened before it is safe “If you see red, you’re dead.” When the gate is screwed shut properly the red markings are no longer visible and it is secure.

To The Edge

Ron explained how one hand is just a guide on the rope, and the other hand manages how the rope is fed through the belay device. Very little effort is needed to stop oneself because of this device. You simply tighten your grip on the rope and you come to a stop. As you pull the rope behind you away from your rear end, you begin to descend faster. Pull it back towards you and tighten your grip and you find yourself stopping again. With the thick ropes we were using, movement would be reassuringly slow.

After checking my gear, I approached the 10 foot edge for the first time. I shouted “On Rappel!”

Equipment and Teamwork

Rappelling is the process of descending on a fixed rope according to Wikepedia. It is also known as “abseiling” and “roping down.” It is used by rock climbers when they want to return to a lower location, by cavers, by rescuers who lower themselves down to those who need to be rescued, and by geocachers who want to reach a cache on a cliff face when there is no other safe manner of reaching and replacing it.

Rappelling uses a fixed rope (or ropes) anchored above you. Your equipment allows you to connect to the ropes at any point. The descender/belay device keeps you on the rope, absorbs and dissipates the heat of friction caused by your descent, and allows you or someone else to stop yourself if necessary.

A rappeller can descend alone, because he has complete control over his descent. However, we were using a “fireman’s belay.” The person acting as the belay merely has to tug on the rope and the rappeller’s descent is interrupted. This will stop a fall, or prevent a fall.

Since you have a situation in which people are working together, and safety is an issue, you need to be able to communicate swiftly and accurately. In the case of climbing and rappelling there are a number of verbal signals that the person on the rope uses to communicate with a person providing a belay. “On Rappel!” tells the belay that you are connected to the rope and about to descend. The belay should respond “Belay On!” to signify that he is taking responsibility for the life of the climber should the descent need to be halted. Hearing this tells you someone is looking out for you below and you can begin your descent.

Test Descent

As I eased over the edge, I tried to position myself as Ron had described. My feet were out in front of me, perpendicular to the rock and my upper body was just about parallel to the rock face. This position allows your weight to be supported in the thighs by the harness. If you’re doing it right you suddenly feel you’re sitting in a very secure seat. Once I achieved that position I felt very comfortable. I worked my way down slowly so that I could get used to the technique.

The feeling was great! It was just like walking backwards down a rock.Juneebug and I had a couple more practices, then we were eager to try the 30 foot rock face. Around that time Wreck Diver had arrived with his daughter and a young woman who I believe was Lhollo777. WD was there to test out some new rescue gear which I believe he did on the 60 foot face.

A light rain began to fall, but it didn’t look like it was going to last, so we prepared for the 30’. We hid our gear and electronics under a rock overhang. Ironically, on relatively flat earth I banged my knee here just as I was stuffing my pack under the rock. Otherwise, I could have said the day concluded without a scratch on my part.

The 30’ descent was in 2 parts. A sheer 30’ drop and then a second, less steep descent for about 30’ which we practiced with a single rope through our belay devices. It was just like doing the 10’ face except for a frightening jog at the beginning which caused one to have to compensate by swinging to one side a bit.

Wreck Diver and his daughter left when the rain started to look like it might stay, but soon after that is slowed to nearly nothing. We were lucky, and we hoped that our luck would continue to hold. A taste of the 30’ and we knew we wanted to try the 60’.

It was around that time that “Chickmunk” arrived with her daughter, a young girl who was a wall climber in the girl scouts but was not experienced in rappelling. They practiced a bit with the single rope while we contemplated the 60’.

Don’t Look Down

When I had first arrived, I was just hoping to learn a thing or two about ropes, equipment and knots. I wasn’t sure rappelling was for me. I don’t have a huge fear of heights, but I think I have a healthy enough fear of them.

I looked over the edge of the 60’ as best as I could without going past the safety zone around the time we were having coffee at the top. No, I didn’t think I was going to want to do that at all. 60 feet is a long way down. The top of my roof is about that high. I’ve been up there and I’ve looked down. It;s disconcerting.

However, coming off the 30, I knew that the key to doing it was probably to not dwell too much on the actual distance. Since it is very much like walking backwards, It’s just like walking twice as far.

When the time came, I felt confident and ready to do the 60’ — which was also where the Cliffside #6 geocache is. A bonus! John checked my gear and Ron was below handling the fireman’s belay. “On Rappel!” I shouted, and when the response came, I approached the edge. There was a moment, as I placed my heels on the edge, that a chill ran through me to the tips of my fingers. I leaned back into position and eased myself off the cliff.

It was much easier than expected. Just like the 30’ but without the disconcerting jog. I quickly reached the cache and asked Ron “Take me” at which time he activated the belay by holding the rope firmly. This allowed me to open and sign the cache, replacing it in the crack for juneebug to give it a try. When I reached the bottom, I came to the full realization of why these guys are out there so often, practicing on the rock face. It’s a real hoot.

I tried the descent a couple more times and we practiced stopping and starting. I tried coming down fast and felt the beaner get warm from the friction. I was actually not going down very quickly, and the beaner was considerably warmer than I expected.

A great Day

I had a great day on the rocks and I think I’m hooked. I’d like to learn more and even get my own gear. Margaret has expressed an interest in trying it out herself. I think it would be fin to get some other people up there some time when Ron and Downy are up there practicing. They’re willing to teach anyone and it would be great if I could get some other people interested so that if I want to try to reach a difficult cache, I’ve got someone else crazy enough to help me do it. They’ve stopped the scheduled tutorial events for the year, but they told me to bring Maggie down whenever they’re there, and I’m sure that offer extends beyond her.

Pictures of my descent:

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Posted by James at October 10, 2004 5:35 PM
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yowza! sounds like you had a great time; your story makes me want to try it, and i've got an exceedingly healthy fear of heights. :)

Posted by: beth at October 11, 2004 4:38 PM

Go James! You rule! It's not something I could ever do but I'm glad to see you did it and came away safe and sound and happy. :-)

Posted by: Chuck S. at October 12, 2004 9:27 AM

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