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Climbing class completes epic ascent

UCC's Climbing Class
Don Gilman / Mainstream
UCC's Climbing Class

Greg Orton, UCC’s rock climbing instructor for the last decade, began his passion for the sport in the eastern Sierra Nevada when he was 23 years old. In the three and a half decades since, the art of ascending steep rock has provided him with a lifetime’s worth of thrilling experiences and a few gut-wrenching stories.

If you happen to pick up the book Peaks, Passes and Trails, the most comprehensive guidebook to the Sierra Nevada, Orton’s name is prominently noted in the first winter ascent of the North Arete route on the iconic Bear Creek Spire. Orton has met and climbed with some of rock climbing and mountaineering’s biggest legends, men such as Doug Robinson and Galen Rowell.

Athletic Director Cheryl Yoder knew Orton would be the perfect person to teach here and approached him without hesitation.

“Rock climbing was one of the very first classes we added [to the outdoor program]. I heard of this famous person named Greg Orton was a pretty amazing rock climber and had written a couple of books. I said ‘Would you be interested in being an instructor for us,’ and he said absolutely,” Yoder said. “Greg’s a fantastic teacher; he is very safety-conscious. He has to deal a lot with students with fear because of heights or fear of falling. It takes a certain kind of instructor to get students over those fears and convince them they can do it, and he has the ability to do that.”

For the last seven years, Orton has added a twist to his spring Rock 2 classes, a horizontal traverse between the towers of Old Man and Old Woman rocks off the North Umpqua Highway.  This epic crossing had only been done successfully by two groups before Orton began taking his students on the adventure.

This crossing, known as a Tyrolean traverse, is a climbing technique first developed in the European Alps used for moved people across a large gap. Using a rope which is secured to both sides of the divide (by throwing it to another climber or by lassoing a rock feature), the climbers then cross over by means of a pulley or carabiner. The technique requires a lot of gear and knowledge to do safely, and having access to Orton and his climbing partner Harold Hall is a unique opportunity for UCC students.

“It was an incredible thing for the first people who did it,” Orton said. The first Tyrolean between Old Man and Old Woman took place in 1980.

Yoder recalled when Orton first asked her about the possibility of attempting the traverse.

“I remember the first time Greg approached me and said ‘Hey, what do you think of us doing the Old man – Old Woman Tyrolean traverse’ and I was like ‘no way, that can’t be done.[Orton said] Oh yeah, it can be done, I’ve done it before.”

Orton said there were practical reasons for doing the traverse. Old Man, as tall as a thirty-story building, is a significantly more difficult ascent than neighboring Old Woman.

“It just made sense. Half the class can’t climb Old Man, so climbing Old Woman and doing the Tyrolean traverse made a lot of sense.”

On May 25, Orton led a group of instructors and students on the all-day adventure. They drove up Highway 138 past Glide to the Soda Springs Dam, approximately 50 miles east of Roseburg. Once at the trailhead, the group sorted gear and a discussed strategy for the day before heading down the North Umpqua Trail to the climber’s path which took them up to the base of the rocks. Two groups were chosen to ascend each tower, and once the leaders were on top, work began constructing anchors and rigging. Eventually a rope was thrown across the yawning chasm between the two towers, the final adjustments were made and climbers began zip-lining across the divide.

For Automotive student Nathan McKinney, the experience was a triumph. McKinney was not only seeking to challenge himself, but was also trying to overcome a fear of heights.

“I thought it’d be a blast. I love the outdoors. It’s been a ton of fun,” McKinney said.

After watching his teammates do the Tyrolean, McKinney was apprehensive about sliding on a pulley across a nearly 200-foot drop.

“Pretty nervous about this,” he said at the time. “But I’ll get it. It’s pretty nerve-wracking, but I think I’m getting over it.”

When his turn came, McKinney stepped forward to get his instruction from Orton on how to attach himself to the rope using carabiners and webbing. After making sure he was well anchored, he stepped out into the void and quickly crossed over the yawning chasm. When the group later rappelled to the safety of solid ground, McKinney was jubilant.

“That was great. I’m so glad I did it,” He said.

For Orton the opportunity to lead young men and women on this rare adventure is a reward in and of itself.

“One of my favorite parts about climbing is the people you climb with and the trust. I think it [the Tyrolean traverse] is pretty huge for everybody. I hope so; I hope they realize what a big deal it is.”

UCC's Climbing Class
Don Gilman / Mainstream
UCC's Climbing Class