Reaching the End of Your Rope is the Whole Damn Point

I was stuck. Hopelessly, impossibly stuck. Clinging to a wet rope with everything I had – which, at that point, admittedly wasn’t  much- unwilling to let go, unable to pull myself any higher. I just dangled there, suspended above a pit of muddy water, trying to somehow balance myself on an uncomfortable knot in a last-gasp attempt to buy myself a little more time. But as I looked around in desperation- at the runners wading in to grab a rope, at the racers coming down off theirs, at the spectators shouting encouragement to those still climbing, at the dejected and exhausted group grinding out their burpees, and more than once up at the bell that now seemed miles above me – reality set in.

Rope Climb End of My Rope

Completing my first Spartan Sprint in March of 2015 was, without question, the hardest and most physically demanding thing I had ever tried up to that point. But in the hours and days that followed, as I nursed my scrapes and rested my muscles and posted my photos and replayed my race in my head, it was the rope climb that haunted me.

It wasn’t that I failed the obstacle. I failed three others, too. But those I could dismiss: I mean, how many times in my life have I ever thrown a spear? Or even seen it done? Who would expect to master that the first time? No, I couldn’t get the rope climb out of my head because it seemed like I should have been able to do it. It wasn’t wet hands and bad grip (like what got me on the monkey bars) or simple physics and bad luck (like what made my foot hit the water on the rope swing), it was bad strategy. I had had the strength to climb that rope; I didn’t know the technique. There had to be a trick. I saw dozens of people do it while I burpeed myself dizzy, every clang of that bell a deafening reminder that someone else knew the trick… and I didn’t.

Thank God for YouTube. With a few mouse clicks, I had access to clip after clip of people (some of whom looked no fitter than me) flying up their ropes like they were being hoisted from a crane. Before long, my vocabulary included spiffy new phrases like “rope management” and I could spot a “J-hook” from an “S-wrap” with just a casual glance. But understanding how to climb a rope in theory and actually climbing a rope in the real world are very two different things. It was clearly a skill that would require practice to make perfect. And watching every single video on the Internet wasn’t going to get me up my next rope if the only time I ever touched one was on raceday.

Spartan Super Atlanta 2015 Rope Climb

Purchasing a 25-foot climbing rope was simple. Hanging it safely in my backyard took some effort. I found two tall trees roughly ten feet apart, easily accessible and with no low branches. From the lumber yard, I bought a 2-by-6 that I would use as a crosspiece to span distance between the tree trunks. The trees are about 10 feet apart; I bought a board that’s 16 feet long. That extra length is crucial.

I fastened one end of the board to the trunk of one tree. I used big, beefy lag screws that penetrated the trunk by several inches; wimpy nails or easy-to-drive deck screws wouldn’t cut it for a job like this. Since I’d be hanging over 20 feet in the air off this contraption, skimping on the hardware seemed downright suicidal. I drilled a pair of holes- the same diameter as the lag screws- all the way through the 2×6, and then drilled smaller pilot holes into the tree trunk. Then with a hex-head socket wrench, I cranked those suckers in until they had drawn that board tight to the bark.

Rope-Climb-Rig-Lag-Screws

The second tree is where things have to get more involved. Merely repeating the process at the other end of the board may seem instinctive, but it neglects a basic principle: TREES MOVE. It doesn’t take much more than a gentle breeze to get even massive trees swaying back and forth.  Anything you hang between two trees needs to allow for that movement, or you risk putting undue force and pressure on whatever’s connecting them. Near-constant twisting and shifting and pushing and pulling will weaken even tight connections over time, and possibly even snap a piece of lumber in two eventually. So here’s what I came up with:

Rope-Climb-Rig-Floating-End

If you look closely, you’ll notice that the horizontal 2×6 crosspiece isn’t actually attached to anything at all. It’s simply resting in something that is. I used two chunks of 2×8 lumber and a scrap piece of plywood to create a bracket of sorts. One piece of 2×8 is screwed tightly to the tree, with the plywood in between. This is what the crosspiece rests on top of, with the added thickness of the plywood allowing just a little bit of play so the crosspiece isn’t wedged tightly against the trunk. Then the other 2×8 is fastened with screws anchored all the way into the tree trunk, with the top end sticking up quite a bit higher than the 2×6 crosspiece. Now the trees can sway in any direction whatsoever- left, right, forward, backward, completely independent of each other- with the 2×6 crosspiece basically riding out the motion in a channel. The extra feet of 2×6 sticking out beyond the second tree looks a bit goofy perhaps, but I know that even if a severe storm pulls those trees in perfectly opposite directions, that crosspiece has plenty of overhang and won’t slip out. (And if the trees are swaying enough for all of that overhang to slide out of its bracket, I have much bigger things to worry about than my backyard rope climbing rig.)

Rope-Climb-Rig-Overhang

Rope-Climb-Rig-Hanging-Hardware

A heavy-duty eye screw and quick-connect link centered on the crosspiece gave me a way to attach my new rope, and I was ready to put my climbing skills to a real-world test. I’ll freely admit, it took several tries. I played with the different foot hook techniques, I taught myself to use my legs to manage the slack, and I suffered through some nasty burns on my inner thighs and outer calves before I learned that protective clothing would be a must for me. I added a single rope climb to the end of my daily workouts and training runs. And soon- sooner than maybe I expected, even- I was hand-tapping the 2×6 crosspiece (I resisted the urge to install my own bell. You’re welcome, neighbors.) and enjoying a bird’s-eye view of my backyard knowing that I would never fail an OCR rope climb again.

Backyard-Rope-Climb-Rig

Six weeks later, running through the woods at my first BattleFrog, I could hear the distinct clanging of a cowbell up around the next hill, and I knew what was coming. Adrenaline kicked in and I actually sprinted to the sound, eager to exorcise the demons of rope-climb burpees past. The rope that day was thinner than on my backyard rig, and not nearly as tall. For just a moment at the top, I locked my legs and stood tall in the rope so I could punch that bell repeatedly like a speedbag. And laughing out loud, I swear I could feel the eyes of at least a few other racers on me, wondering what in the hell the trick was to mastering this obstacle.

*A few notes about rigging up your own backyard rope climb:
-Ropes come in varying lengths and thicknesses. A diameter of 1-1/2 to 2 inches will approximate what you’ll find on most OCR courses. Choose what works for you and your situation, but buy a “climbing rope” or a “battle rope.” Don’t just ask the guy at the hardware store to cut you off something that looks good from a big spool in Aisle 7; those ropes likely aren’t meant to hold human weight. And steer clear of light-duty “climbing ropes” that are designed for children’s playsets.

-Not all ropes come with hanging hardware on one end. Consider how you plan to securely attach your rope before you pull the trigger on a purchase.

-All lumber should be pressure-treated, and all fasteners and hardware should be heavy-duty and outdoor-rated if your rope climbing rig will live outside, exposed to the elements.

-Consider your floor, especially the higher you make your rope climb. Cushion a large area underneath the rope with lots of landscape mulch, bales of hay, foam padding, protective mats, an old mattress… ANYTHING.

-Despite every precaution, there’s still an inherent danger, same as when you actually participate in an OCR. Don’t take anything for granted- when you build a rope climb, or when you do a rope climb. Know the risks and use good judgment.