Writing & Photography of Jim Murtagh

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The Writings & Photography of Jim Murtagh

Wallow in the Hollow - Going Vertical

Brien Roscetti yells “rope” immediately before tossing a coil of blue dynamic climbing rope over the edge of a sixty-foot high rock face in Chatfield Hollow State Park. Oblivious to the climbers, a red-tailed hawk soars just above the trees, nearly at eye level, and a warm stiff breeze stirs the forest which is ready to explode with buds. The unwieldy package lands with a thud and tightens the non-stretch static anchor lines to which it is attached. Roscetti, a fifteen year climbing veteran from Clinton, is preparing to tackle Wallow in the Hollow, an ascent that is rated at 5.12d on a scale that maxes out at 5.15.

Climbers talk about “going vertical” but this particular route requires the climber to push themselves beyond vertical, as the undercut rock face is clearly made evident by the rope which hangs some twelve feet away from the base. Roscetti describes the climb as “one of the hardest in the state” and even though it might only be 30 feet across, “it is in your face and demands your attention the whole way.”

Cautiously, Roscetti navigates his way up the cliff by exploiting natural imperfections in the wall. He supports his weight by jamming his toes into a foothold created by a narrow seam in the rock. Stuffing one hand into a crack, he twists it so that his wrist acts as a wedge and will not pull free. With his other hand, he crimps a half-inch wide ledge, and with whitened, blood deprived fingertips, pulls himself upward.

Tired, but not exhausted, he reaches the top of the climb, and then releases his grip from the wall. Roscetti’s long time climbing partner, Vince Ramondetta, belays him back to the ground using the safety line. The ride down is equally as exhilarating as the accomplishment of the ascent. Roscetti revels in the freedom of dangling by a rope, and from this unique vantage point, expresses why he loves to climb– “Unless you climb, or are a mountain goat, you’ll never see places like these.”

Roscetti acknowledges that rock climbing involves risk, but he likes to say “It is less about risk and more about risk management.” Certified by the American Mountain Guide Association, Roscetti takes his risk management practices very seriously. Every aspect of his safety plan is redundant, meaning that if one safety system should fail, there is an equally strong secondary system in place. Before getting “on rock,” he meticulously inspects his gear and goes through a series of verbal and visual checks with Ramondetta, even though the two have been climbing together for over a decade. It is a well disciplined procedure that has been repeated hundreds of times.

Ramondetta is responsible for introducing Roscetti to climbing and explains why the sport is so enthralling. “The first time I got on rock at 40 years old, the focus was so incredible that you just don’t think about anything else. Everything leaves you, except what you are doing and where are you going. It’s not fear that takes over, but rather the focus of your next move.” Roscetti agrees, and then adds “The only thing you can be is in the moment, because if you are anywhere else, you are falling.”

Both climbers promote rock climbing as a valuable youth activity and often take kids out on their first climb. Ramondetta wonders what advantages he might have at this stage in his life if he learned to focus at ten years old, the way he does when he climbs. He explains how kids can benefit from climbing “It would be really great if you can take a kid and teach them how to focus. Get on rock, and you’re immediately focused!”

In organized team sports, there is a coach to direct you, but climbers must learn to make their own decisions, take their own risks, and then accept the consequences. “I like the physical, mental and psychological aspects (of climbing), but more than anything, I like being outdoors.” says Roscetti.

Rock climbing in Connecticut is unlike climbing in other parts of the country. Roscetti describes it as “suburban climbing” and explains “you’re next to someone’s house or you’re in someone’s backyard.” The style practiced most frequently is called “technical free climbing” and does not rely on gear to pull oneself up the face as in mountaineering, but rather depends on it for protection in case of a fall. “Your own strength and wits gets you through a climb.” Roscetti notes.

Protective gear, often shortened to just “pro,” comes in two types: passive and active. Passive gear is comprised of tapered metal wedges and rounded cams which are jammed or twisted into cracks in the rock. Spring-loaded camming devices are “active pro” and wedge firmly into cracks by releasing a trigger mechanism. As the climber moves up the wall, they place their protective gear, and then attach a sling and carabiner, to which they secure their rope. The first climber installs the gear and the last climber removes it.

Although there are many places to climb in Connecticut, there are not nearly enough to satisfy the growing demand, and like many other niche sporting activities, as the popularity of the sport increases, so does the competition for resources. To safeguard such limited resources, Roscetti is an active member in the Ragged Mountain Foundation, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to maintaining public access to Connecticut’s high and wild places. In addition, Roscetti makes a concerted effort to ensure that the impression he leaves behind after a climb is favorable, by often going out of his way to remove discarded trash, and by setting an example for safety to others.

This vertical game of Twister may not be the sport for everyone, but Roscetti knew it was perfect for him the first time he got four feet off the ground. “It was like being in grammar school all over.” With a tremendous smile on his face, he poses this question, “How often as an adult do you get to act like a kid again?” and then swings his leg up onto a ledge to begin another climb.