Close Calls: Climbing Mishaps and Near-Death Experiences. John Long. Helena, MT: Falcon Publishing, 1999. 182 pages. $12.95.
John Long is a Yosemite hardman from the 1970s and the author or editor of some 17 books on rock climbing. In Rock Jocks, Wall Rats, & Hang Dogs, his account of his early career in and around the Valley, he recounts free-soloing 2,000 feet of 5.10 routes in a day at Joshua Tree—and nearly dying capping the day off with a 5.11. Evidently, he has grown more circumspect with age. His latest book, Close Calls, is devoted to safety.
In Close Calls, Mr. Long applies the droll style he has honed over the years to the accident-and-analysis format of Accidents in North American Mountaineering. He can get away with taking a comic approach to such a serious subject because, despite their carelessness and recklessness, the anti-heroes of these dramas all survived (miraculously, in many cases) to tell their tales. Collectively, they constitute a madcap Accidental Survivals in North American Mountaineering. Each story is followed by some pointed commentary, sensible advice and a cartoon by Tami Knight that vividly captures either the state of mindlessness of the perpetrator or the dire consequences of the deed. The locations range from Yosemite to local crags and rock gyms, the climbers from world-class to beginner. The names have been changed to protect the negligent, and the stories embellished with amusing details unabashedly supplied by the author.
The morals of most of these fables are timeless verities that every climber knows, but which many occasionally neglect: fasten your harness; rope up; set protection at regular intervals; bring water; don’t climb drunk; don’t test anchors with swan dives; watch out for rock- fall; be careful with knives when dangling from ropes; be wary of gasoline stoves in nylon tents and romantic entanglements; don’t climb with strange felons; don’t drop your gear; don’t rappel from rotten slings or off the end of the rope.
Other mistakes are more subtle, and yield more advanced lessons: don’t belay directly beneath the climber; set anchors to withstand lateral pulls; anticipate both rope drag and stretch; plot the trajectories of both your own and others’ likely pendulums; if you must climb drunk, don’t puke on your rockshoes; keep in mind that real handholds may break and that gym holds may spin; the speed of long rappels increases as the rope runs out, lowering the tension on the braking device; and, given the extreme difficulty of have sex with harnesses on, the deed is best accomplished on hanging bivouacs by tying off one ankle apiece with a hangman’s noose.
Many readers will find themselves sorting the various incidents into such categories as: stunts so wantonly reckless that there is absolutely no possibility of their engaging in anything remotely comparable; blunders which, although egregious, they could at least imagine themselves making in an unguarded moment; and, finally, stuff they’ve actually done. Others will find themselves recalling antics of their own that were easily as brainless as any in the book, but which, happily, have not been recorded for posterity.
In short, Close Calls is entertaining enough to keep the reader going and serious enough to be worth the investment. While no one is going to remember each incident, their cumulative impact should be adequate to make many a bit more careful, which amply justifies the project.