Anchored, But Never Tied Down

When my boyfriend gave me my personal anchor system, it came in a series of Christmas gifts wrapped in newspapers, positioned so a photo filled one side of the box, with humorous thoughts and proclamations written over the heads of the people depicted. On the box with the PAS inside, a grinning woman in aviators declared, “You may not realize it yet, but this shit is about to become real important to you.”

I think he was talking about giving gifts between the two of us and sharing holidays in a way that signaled the development of our relationship and our commitment to one another, and not necessarily what was in the box, but it applied to both. I had just started climbing and had no idea what the daisy chain of black webbing would do for me.

He took me out climbing a few weeks later, and on an unseasonably warm January day, he climbed to the top of a sport route on North Table Mountain near Golden, Colo., used his own daisy chain to anchor himself to the top of the climb, and belayed me up from there. He’d girth-hitched my anchor system to my harness, given me advice on how to position it to keep it out of the way (which I ignored, because, yes, I was that kind of student), and, at the top of the climb, showed me how to clip its locking carabiner to the anchors and back it up with another quickdraw. Simple enough. Then he talked me through cleaning the top of a sport route so I could take down routes myself and save him from having to complete every climb he put up twice.

My PAS became a transformative tool for me in going from being a belay betty, who came along for a ride on a few 5.7s and 5.8s, to a partner who could follow and take down 5.10s. In a practical sense, what my PAS does is keep me from falling to my death. It has become a sign to me that I’ve completed something, whether it’s a single-pitch sport climb or just one of several pitches on a multi-pitch trad line. Locking its carabiner down is a signal to me to relax, to revel in the sense of accomplishment I get when finishing a route — I took up climbing for the same reason I gave up knitting: I like the feeling of having finished a task. At the top of a sport climb, it’s also the turning point at which my life goes from being in someone else’s hands to being in my own as I set up a rappel and control my own descent from the climb.

My PAS has become one of my most-revered pieces of gear. I trust it — not the blind trust that means never checking your gear to see if it’s wearing through. But the trust that tells me, if I’ve checked it on the ground, clipped it in and locked it, I don’t think about it again. I don’t worry that it might glance away at my moment of need. I don’t have visions of it unraveling or shredding and allowing me to plummet to certain death. Or even of it flirting with other women.

Flirting? Right. Because the truth is, the kind of relationship I have with my PAS is a kind of relationship I’ve never been able to have with a human being.

I trust it to have my best interest in mind. I don’t feel less in control of my own life when I use my PAS to anchor myself at the top of a climb. When I’m pushing grades and need to clip into a bolt to rest and visualize my next moves, I don’t resent it for holding me up. I would never feel a desire to log in to my PAS’s email account to see if it’s been using online dating sites again. I wouldn’t get jealous if someone else happened to take my PAS for a climb (not that it would ever leave my side). Even when it’s a little dirty, I’m proud to be seen with my PAS — my badge of honor in a gym, the mark that I’ve been out in the world, climbed hard and gotten dirty for it. It has impeccable table manners and is always dressed appropriately.

The boyfriend … well … let’s just say I have a friend who refers to him as Bad Hat Guy.

It’s a lot easier to share the world with just my gear. Ropes and webbing and quick draws and camalots place fewer demands on my time and attention, and are always ready and available to go when I am. They’re unflaggingly patient, even if I’m cranky. They don’t have bad days. And they never question whether I put the right kind of jelly on the PB&J. But, while I’ve had nights I’ve considered cuddling up to my rope, and the embrace of my PAS certainly is secure, it’s not terribly warm. And it never brings take-out Chinese and a six-pack over to watch movies after I’ve worn myself out climbing rocks all day.

I still think of that phrase, “this shit is about to become real important to you,” as I clip in at the top of a climb and my PAS becomes real important to me. I think about the boyfriend, now an ex, and all the men who have come after him.

After all, he’s been replaced. And my gear has not.

Freelance writer and Denver resident Elizabeth Miller is part of the third-generation of her family to be born in Colorado. If she happens to die while rock climbing, she would prefer to be buried near the old family farm in Meeker, though really, any open field will do.