I woke up in the cool morning, my face open to the morning air, with the smell of pine and new spring growth on Pilot Mountain. The new growth covers the mountain floor, renewing life after the annual burn. I rolled out of my hammock and got ready for the day, packing up my camp - my hammock, sleeping bag, and backpack. We drove the rest of the way to summit, not a thought in our minds about life at home - money, chores, or jobs - just the building excitement for a day on the mountain.
We planned our climbs for the morning as we drove, parked, finished packing our bags (only the essential climbing gear, and minimal food and water - camp gear was left in the car) and begin the hike to the cliffs.
Today would be my first clean and rappel. Climbing is dangerous, and cleaning a climb is probably one of the most technical skills required, and one of the most dangerous, if the cleaner is not fully prepared and capable. You're removing the trust of another person holding you on belay at the foot of the cliff, and trusting your equipment to hold, and your technical skills to anchor, untie, attach the rappel, and descend safely.
Will completed the climb first - setting anchors on the 92 foot wall, a 5.7 route called Chicken Bone. I lowered him, and pulled our rope through, then prepared myself to climb. I had to ensure that I had all necessary gear to properly clean at the end - otherwise, we'd someone would have to climb it again, or our gear would be stuck on the wall. I started the climb, the early morning rock cold on my fingers. As I reached each of the 10 bolts on the wall, I clipped my rope to the draw that Will placed, protecting myself for another 10 or so feet. When reached the anchors, I clipped the two anchor draws and was able to rest.
When I'd sufficiently steeled myself, I unclipped my anchor clips from my gear loop - already hooked to my two sling loops, tied to my harness - and clipped them to the anchors bolted to the rock face at the top of the climb. Now I could test them, by asking my belayer for slack. As I pulled up slack in the rope, my slings went taught, and I knew I was in direct - directly anchored to the wall. I alerted my belayer that I was in direct, then asked for more slack. Now, I could remove the two anchor draws by unclipping them from the anchors, clipping them to my gear loop, then unclipping them from the rope, in that order to prevent dropping them. I pulled up more slack in the rope to pull a bight through the anchor loops and knot it, so that it wouldn't fall if I dropped it when untying (if that happened, I would require rescue from another climber).
After the rope was secured through the anchors, I requested to be taken off belay by calling to my belayer. He asked for confirmation, to prevent any miscommunication, and I confirmed. Queue suspenseful music. At this point, I was about to untie myself from my rope - my lifeline of safety in my entire experience rock climbing. To keep calm, I remind myself that this is the correct sequence, a necessary part of the clean and rappel, and safe because I have redundant anchor loops into the wall directly. I untied the rope from my harness and continued to pull the rope through the anchors, by the knot I tied earlier. I pulled the rope to lower it until both ends were touching the ground (confirmed by my belayer). Then, I attached to rappel, by pulling a loop in either side of the now doubled rope and connecting it to my belay device and carabiner. I then tied a friction hitch to the rope - a backup knot that would catch me and hold the rope if anything went wrong on the rappel. I stood, moving higher and pulling my rope through the belay device, then braking, until my weight was on the rope, and my anchors went slack.
I again reminded myself that slack in one part of the system and taughtness in another (with everything done properly) means safety to remove the part with slack. I unclipped my personal anchor slings from the anchors in the rock, and was officially on rappel, with the anchors cleaned. I rappelled down the wall, unclipping each quick draw from the bolts on the way, and collecting them on my gear loops, until I was at the base of the cliff, on solid ground. I untied myself, untied the knots from the end of the ropes, pulled the rope through the anchors, and was done - the route was 100% clean, and I was safe.
After the first route, we repeated the process on a shorter but harder (5.9) route called Black Rain, which is a challenging crimpy and reachy start with an easy juggy middle section and a slopey end. Then we reversed our roles for a third climb, an incredibly fun 5.7 route that starts in a dihedral before traversing a slab face to move around an arête and finishing on a face with tons of exposure. Then I lead and cleaned a 5.10 route called Eroctica which starts under two roofs, and moves through a double right side-pull to a high sloper to pull into an easy but unprotected slab to the finish. To finish off the morning at Pilot Mountain, before going to Moore's Wall at Hanging Rock State Park for bouldering, I top-roped a fun 5.7 called Kiss My Ass, then immediately repeated it, with a harder variation on the start, going left around a roof with a high move to a gaston, making it a 5.9.
Rock climbing has become one of the best parts of my life.
I'm so grateful that two years ago, a slightly depressed me, wanting to try to make the most out of my last six months in college, decided to take the belay test at my university's climbing wall. I'm not entirely sure what it was that made me want to do it, but the result was that I started spending time at the gym so I could earn punches on my belay card to become certified. I started climbing more, and wanting to improve. I made friends, and eventually took part in my first competition - I was in the beginner category and took first place (out of two!). In the spring, a few of the more experienced climbers started taking groups of people out to boulder in the hills of Athens, cementing the foundation of my love of the sport.
Rock climbing makes me feel incredibly accomplished, but also endlessly challenged. As I improve my strength and my skills in the gym, I feel good about my progress, and have fun at the same time. Climbing outside is infinitely more.
When I get outside, to climb on real rock, on real cliffs, on real mountains, the feeling is indescribable. It's the closest I've ever been to, as they say "leaving everything else behind." Even on vacation or holidays, relaxing on the beach or spending time with family, I've never been as clear of the day-to-day worries of life, like chores, money, obligations, work, or even my self image. When hiking a mountain trail and setting up my rappel at the top, or my lead rope at the bottom, it's all about enjoying nature, preparing for the challenge, being safe, and just being alive and in the moment. I hope everyone finds thing that makes them feel that way. It makes all the work worthwhile, and reminds us that life is good.