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Rock climbing adventure

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By Ken Begley

“One way to get the most out of life is to look upon it as an adventure.”
- William Feather

You know, when I was young and single, I got to do a lot of interesting adventures.

I joined the U.S. Navy at 17 and saw a lot of ocean and Europe in the process. I even watched us collide with another ship and nearly sink it.

I drove a motorcycle from Kentucky to Daytona Beach when I was 19 on my learner’s permit.

I backpacked in the Andes Mountains of South America when I was 24 to the “Lost Incan City” called Machu Picchu.

I pumped a bicycle through some 700 miles of eastern China when I was 25.

In fact, when I married Cindy, her cousin said she was so lucky to marry me because I was always going on these great trips.

Strange, after we married, I never took Cindy further than Gatlinburg, Tenn. My money seemed to have run out by then, which has always been a source of great disappointment for Cindy, but not grounds for annulment.

But the greatest adventure (read this as scary) was a 24-day trip with an organization called “North Carolina Outward Bound” in 1980 at the age of 23. If you have ever watched the show “Survivor,” then you will get a pretty good idea as to what their guides are capable of on the physical side. I went in weighing about 165 pounds and was in pretty good shape. I came out weighing 130 pounds and looked like something from a German concentration camp.

I would put any one of those Outward Bound guides against present-day “Survivor” folks, and they would have beat them to a pulp in all the physical aspects of the game.

What they did was a combination of backpacking, river canoeing, solo trips in the woods and let us not forget the biggest challenge called “rock climbing.”

The backpacking challenge consisted of giving you a topographical map, telling you that “you are here” and you have three days of hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains to get “there.” There was no trail.

You had to whack bushes out of the way while looking at a compass, watching the terrain and lugging a backpack and equipment that may weigh up to 60 pounds or so for about 35 miles in total. We did this three separate times. Oh, by the way, getting lost — which frequently happened as one tree and one ridge line pretty much looks like another — added to the distance.

The canoeing involved three days of rain on what started as a very gentle river. It was a roaring mass of angry water by the third day that actually came close to drowning me even with a life preserver on when my canoe capsized. By the way, I was an extremely experienced swimmer at the time and had passed the lifeguard course, but I found out rapids don’t care about certificates.

But the scariest thing I ever did in my life was something called “rock climbing” at Outward Bound.

To be honest, I had no idea what rock climbing was when I signed up for this vacation. We didn’t have the Internet in those days, and I could not “Google” the term.

Later, I found out that rock climbing meant “an activity in which participants climb up, down or across natural rock formations of a usually pre-defined route without falling.” The “without falling” is very important because the rope is tied to another person, and you could ruin everybody’s day if you fell.

You basically cling to the side of a mountain with your toes and fingernails while heading up said mountain.

Outward Bound provided us with three sets of professional climbers. We got two days of basic training and then up we went.

There were many different “climbs” on the mountain, some much tougher than others, each of which had names. When the other professional climbers balked at going up one such climb called “Skip to My Lou,” the lead climber readily laughed at them and said, “I’ll take it.” Then, as if to prove how easy it was, he looked around and picked out the biggest dunderhead among us novices and said, “Begley, you come with me.”

“Crap,” I thought, “I don’t even know Lou, let alone want to skip up this mountain with him.“

I did end up climbing up the face of the mountain tied to the human mountain goat. It took several hours, and I was the only one to go up that way. The others had these rock ledges every 30 feet or so. Not my route. I went up 200 feet only to see my guide standing against the mountain with his rope tied into a half moon of what they called hexes that are stuck into rock cracks. I couldn’t go back down and I couldn’t get to the top without doing what he had done.

I thought I was going to die of fright.

No ledge anywhere.

It’s amazing what you can do when you have no choice. He got out of there, and I took his place. He disappeared as I held his lifeline, knowing that if he slipped we were both screwed. No way was I going to stop his fall and then I would have no way to get back down. I would just be left hanging there on the side of the mountain until someone rescued me.

The next stop was another 200 feet up where there was a ledge.

There’s a lot more to the story, but suffice it to say, I survived as a wiser and weaker man and vowed never to do it again.

Now, the purpose of me telling you this story is that I’m going to do it again at the age of 56; hopefully on a smaller scale.

I promised my 15-year-old daughter, Jenny, that I would take her on a mini-adventure June 6-9 that includes rock climbing in Red River Gorge. It’s something arranged by the Army, University of Kentucky and an extreme outdoor adventure company.

If it’s anything as bad as the one I did in North Carolina then I’m not going up it.

Jenny says she’s going to the top.

We’ll see.

I’ll take pictures.

Story to follow in June.