What Climbing is Really About
"Belay ON!" With these two words, several Cooper Union engineering students began to scramble up Outward Bound's "Alpine Tower" in Gateway National Recreation Park, Jamaica Bay, Queens, on a sunny September morning.
The Tower is a simulated rock-climbing structure, made from telephone poles, cargo nets, swinging logs, knotted ropes, clay hand and foot holds (inconveniently spaced), and ladders. Topped with a platform, it stands about as high as a four or five story building.
Before they began their climb, all of the participating students, faculty, and staff were thoroughly instructed in the safety procedures and equipment used in climbing the Tower. Safety in climbing is of number one importance to Outward Bound, and everyone found themselves glad of it.
Safety harnesses, belaying hooks, ropes, and helmets were provided by Outward Bound. After all, when you are fifty feet in the air, with your life in someone else's hands, you want to know your equipment and procedures are fool-proof. But, more than that, you need to trust in your team and believe that they will take care of you no matter what.
The future climbers were instructed in knotting techniques, the "slip-slide-side" belaying technique used to provide a secure support for the climber, the belaying partner's job of minding the rope and providing back-up support, the proper way to climb, fall, and descend, and appopriate words to used when requesting a tighter or slacker rein on the ropes, as well as the importance of teamwork in climbing. Each of the three legs of the Tower offered alternative routes, and the climbers were challenged to show initiative in their route to the top of the Tower, although getting to the top was never stressed as the sole goal.
Most students and faculty or staff fell into one of two camps: those who thought they would be able to run right up the Tower and those who thought they couldn't possibly do it. A few people had experience climbing and rappeling; others were very athletic, several had gone backpacking or hiking. There were still others who were not in top physical shape; some had never done anything even remotely this outdoorsy; some were quite afraid, while others were supremely confident.
In one group, a 5'3", 110-lb. woman with no upper-body strength chose to belay a 6'4", 150-lb. man with substantial athletic experience. About twenty five feet up one leg of the Tower, the confident male climber simply began to tremble and couldn't continue. He tried to climb down, but was urged to let go as instructed, push away, and let the female belayer bring him safely down.
When he got down, angry at himself, and humbled by the challenge of the Tower, his first words were: "I feel like a woman." When the two women in his group looked in amazement at him, he explained: "Well, you know, a wuss." This episode illustrates in several ways why Cooper Union chose to embark on this experimental pilot program with Outward Bound.
(go back home)