I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

Trust the rope


Industrial designers can’t help but evaluate any product’s ability to do its job. Sure we trust airplanes like anyone else, but we still manage to gnash our teeth at the poor passenger sound system controls, or the klugey tray table mechanism in front of us. Since we can’t really evaluate the effectiveness of the jet engines from seat 15B, we pick on what we can.

I had an extreme education in product effectiveness yesterday, when I took an introductory outdoor rock climbing course, given by a nationally esteemed instructor, Joe Lentini (that’s him in the photo). At the start of the day, my mind was nowhere near evaluating product specs. I was thinking, “Does this guy look like he knows what he is doing; just how high is that rock face anyway; my legs ache and I haven’t even ascended a foot; a coupla these chicks look like they could break me in half; where in the world do you stick your toes and fingers on this sheer granite wall; do my baggy hiking pants look dorky and are they going to get caught on the rock wall; is it going to rain; and how am I going to get through the scary first task of rapelling backwards over this very high cliff like Spiderman?”

Meanwhile, teacher Joe, who had extremely impressive masses of clinking hardware and bands strapped across his chest like some kind of mountain man version of the Frito Bandito, kept coming back to the gear. He started with discussing the specific tensile capabilities of the rope (if you free-fall it will stretch up to 10% of its length so you can withstand the sudden bottoming-out impact on your vulnerable innards), the major axis strength ratings of the carabiners (25 kilonewtons), the merits of nylon over newer webbing materials, and on and on. He even gave us a thorough walk-through of the various pieces of hardware he would jam into a crack into the top of the cliff we would climb, as back-up systems if the tree our climbing rope was tied to suddenly toppled over. He flooded us with new information about Camalot cams, known as “friends”, and the linear system of differential equations used by their now revered (and incredibly wealthy) inventor Ray Jardine.

I was half listening, thinking, “All right already. I now know you have $5,000 worth of equipment on your person, that you are intimately familiar with every piece of gear and its benefits, and that if I ever need to buy rock climbing stuff, I’ll email you first for recommendations.” And then it hit me, as Joe continued to explain the rigorous material science, design and engineering of our gear–each cam, strap, carabiner, rope, friend and balay device was part of an intricate system that, for each of us climbers, meant pretty much the difference between, well, surviving the day’s climbs, or….not. This really was life or death, on an up close and personal scale. One bad carabiner, goodbye Jules.

No wonder Joe kept saying, “You just need to trust the rope.” I went from figuratively yawning at reading the 25 kilonewtons load bearing rating of the carabiner allocated to me, to wondering if maybe I could get, say, a 30 or 35 kilonewtons upgrade off of the array on Joe’s chest.

And on my first ascent, which also featured my first fall, I was very grateful to be linked to an over-engineered purple rope that could hold up to 5,000 pounds, as I swung out and slammed back into the rock surface, a little battered, but nowhere near the sharp rocky ground 20 or so feet below. Trust the rope? You betcha. I started to totally revere the rope, and steer very clear of its extra length sprawled on the ground–we were told that stepping on it and grinding dirt into its fibers accelerates its aging. No way in hell did I want to be the cause of one iota less of load-bearing capability.

Ray Jardine…I’m glad you so deftly figured out those clever cam angles. They may have saved my life (or at least a limb or two). Here’s to you, wherever you are out on the ocean in your fancy 57′ long Hinckley. Here’s to products that do the job.

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