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Wilderness Climbing: There Is A Difference

Author: jmaher
Date: November 03, 2004
Wilderness Climbing: There Is A Difference

For most recreational climbers the phrase "climbing wild" is a term used to describe the act of climbing a wild tree; a tree that has been previously unclimbed or a tree that has been left "as is" after previous climbs and still retains an untamed or undeveloped quality. This article is intended to put forth the idea that "climbing wild" not only means climbing in wild trees but that the climb is taking place in a wild or wilderness environment. The term "wild climb" can be used to describe any climb in a wild tree. "Climbing wild", on the other hand places the tree to be climbed beyond the influence of human impact; wilderness climbing, in other words.

If readers are willing to accept this premise then it follows that recreational climbing can be broken into three basic categories, based on the tree to be climbed and its location: Tame climbs, wild climbs, and wilderness climbs. It is accepted that readers will not dispute the idea that climbing a wild tree calls for a different style of climbing than that necessary for climbing a tame tree. But are you willing to accept the idea that climbing a wild tree in a wilderness setting requires still another style beyond that required for a wild tree in a non-wilderness setting? It is suspected that most climbers have not carried the thinking all the way through to that conclusion.

The climbing of most tame trees requires nothing more than those techniques learned in a basic climbing course. Double rope technique is the most common method of ascent and will suffice anytime a cleared and isolated route of vertical travel can be achieved. Many climbers will also use single rope technique, although this is usually a reflection of preference and personal climbing style rather than a necessity. Tame climbing will usually take place in an area that has nearby vehicle access, allowing climbers to bring along as much gear as they like. Tame trees have had most of their hazards removed, and while some hazards may remain in the tree, climbers are usually aware of their presence and avoid them. Rigorous adherence to those safety rules set forth in a basic climbing course is sufficient to keep climbers safe from harm. The sense of adventure and the perception of risk experienced during a tame climb make such a climb a very enjoyable activity.

A climb in a wild tree, in a non-wilderness setting, raises the climbing experience to a higher level. Such trees can usually be climbed using those techniques learned in a basic climbing course, but the really successful climber will have more advanced techniques on hand. A clear and isolated route of vertical access cannot always be attained and the climber must be able to incorporate alternative techniques and equipment in order to have a successful ascent. The climber approaching a wild tree will need to have a variety of techniques at hand and know those that will or will not work in any given situation. The climber should be willing and able to go "outside the box" and employ creative problem solving as challenges are faced.

Adventure and risk are words that take on new meaning while climbing wild trees. Adventure becomes more than a concept; it becomes real. Risk is no longer merely perceptual but actually exists. The potential for mishaps is higher.

Safety protocols that were sufficient for climbing in tame trees must be upgraded for climbing wild trees. Remember: The wild tree has probably not been climbed before. Settings have not been tested and there may be hazards in the tree that will not be discovered until the climber is well off the ground and in the canopy. Wild trees are more likely to be inhabited by wildlife. Wild trees must obviously be approached with a high degree of caution.

Like tame trees, most wild trees in a non-wilderness environment will be relatively close to vehicle access and climbers will usually be able to have all the equipment they want nearby.

Also, the wild tree in a non-wilderness environment may be tamed for future climbs and developed for safe climbing. Once tamed, such a tree may be approached with the same mindset as any other tame tree. Keep in mind that all tame trees had their beginnings as wild trees.

Now we go to the "wilderness climb" or the act of climbing wild. Wilderness climbing, as already stated, implies that one is climbing wild trees in a wilderness environment. Climbing wild does not merely elevate the climbing of a wild tree to a new level of challenge and difficulty; it takes the climb up through several levels and onto an entirely new plane. There is a difference between climbing tame and wild trees, and an even bigger difference between these and wilderness climbing. Climbing wild, in a wilderness setting, requires wilderness skills as well as those required for climbing a wild tree. Wilderness climbing also asks that climbers be in possession of a solid wilderness ethic. Wilderness climbing precludes any notions that one might have in regard to taming or developing trees for future climbs.

Most importantly, wilderness climbing calls for skills and thinking that carry climbers outside the box created within the confines of a basic climbing course. The challenges are greater, therefore the approach must be different. It is imperative that the wilderness climber be willing to accept the idea that the probability for the experience of real adventure and real risk is an inherent component of any wilderness climb. Risk is a function of many contributing factors. Having the ability to recognize the differences between real and perceived risk, between positive and negative risk, and being able to make an informed personal risk assessment based on a detailed risk analysis is a necessary process within the climber's personal safety protocol.

Before going farther, let's make sure that everyone has a clear understanding of the definition of wilderness. According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness is "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." By definition then, wilderness is a place where vehicles are not allowed, no permanent campsites or structures may be made, where wildlife and its habitat would be kept in as primitive a condition as possible. This definition is the official government word on the subject and applies to those areas designated by our government as Wilderness Areas. Another definition of wilderness would be any naturally existing area remote from, and unimpacted by, the influences of civilization, whether designated by the government as wilderness or not. Put another way, wilderness could be said to be those places where nature is allowed to prevail over man.

Those who travel in wilderness areas, whether climbing, backpacking, or involved in other outdoor activities, should be in possession of, and adhere to, a strict wilderness ethic. A good wilderness ethic is nothing more than the implementation of the idea that wilderness should always be left exactly as it was found. Leave nature alone and let nature prevail. Very simple.

Wilderness areas are usually accessible only by primitive means of transportation. In other words the traveler within an area of wilderness will most likely have arrived there on foot or by pedaling or paddling. This means that equipment must be limited to what the climber is capable of carrying in a backpack, on a bike, or in a canoe or kayak. Going into such areas can also involve an overnight in the forest, and that means that camping equipment will be needed in addition to climbing equipment. And if the idea is to spend a night in the treetops, then even more equipment is necessary. All of this means that the aspiring wilderness climber needs to become a minimalist. Carry no more equipment than is absolutely necessary while being sure to have enough to be both safe and to have a successful climb. The wilderness climber cannot afford the luxury of having on hand every item of equipment that is owned just in case it is needed. Heavy gear needs to be avoided. Excessive gear needs to be avoided. Equipment that can be multi-tasked should be carried in favor of specialty items that are capable of performing only one function. Redundancy should be avoided.

Minimalism asks that climbers do without some of the equipment that they would normally carry for climbs in the non-wilderness environment and utilize techniques that allow the climber to make successful, safe, and enjoyable ascents in the absence of such equipment. This is one of those areas that climbers who operate mostly in the non-wilderness environment find hard to accept and results in a feeling of discomfort. Minimalism runs counter to the idea that the more equipment a climber has and uses, the more likely a climber will have safe and successful climbs. Minimalism is one of those areas that calls for climbers to stand away from the box created within the philosophies put forth during a basic climbing course.

Because wilderness areas are usually remote, a higher standard of safety should be employed. The wilderness climber may not assume that there will be a rescue or emergency medical crew available in the event of an accident. In wilderness areas the climber will usually represent his or her own best chance for a rescue; knowledge and practice at self-rescue techniques is obviously mandatory. The wilderness climber must be able to function as an independent self-contained unit without benefit of a support group.

Almost every climb in a wilderness setting will be in a wild, previously unclimbed tree. Settings will have been untested, the overall security of the tree unknown. All settings should be held suspect until proven otherwise. Settings should be kept close to the trunk of the tree. All settings, even those that may have been climbed previously, should be tested with the climber's weight before the climber becomes attached to the rope and starts the climb. Doubtful settings should be abandoned on the spot.

Wild trees have not been cleared of hazards. Wild trees in wilderness settings should not be cleared of hazards. The tree should be left "as is". As climbers advance they must be alert to these hazards and avoid them. Because trees have not been cleaned and developed for climbing it is necessary that climbers devote much time and attention to the issue of rope management. The same dead limb that can fall on a climber can also snag a rope once the climber is above it.

Problems of initial access in areas of wilderness can differ from those experienced in the civilized environment. The simple toss of a throwbag and throwline is no longer simple when one is standing in dense vegetation and the window of access is cluttered with understory. Getting a line up under these conditions can necessitate the use of crossbows, slingshots, or compound bows, and may call for lighter than usual line if the setting to be used is at a height beyond the ability of the climber to gain access otherwise.

These then are some of the more obvious differences that can influence a climber's approach to making climbs within a wilderness environment. Climbing in such an environment can be, and is, a very enjoyable and safe activity when climbers are willing to accept the idea that this type of climbing requires a different style of climbing and mindset than that necessary for climbing in non-wilderness. Such an approach will give the climber more access to more trees while offering the chance for a meaningful wilderness experience at the same time.

It is suggested that those who wish to take their climbing into the wilderness environment receive instruction in techniques particular to this type of climbing before hefting their equipment onto their backs and heading off into the forest.

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