Vertical adventurers seek rope dangling thrills

Hundreds of feet above the valley floor, dangling for a rope, Todd Offenbacher felt a snap.

"The first thing I though was that the anchors at the top of the rope pulled," Offenbacher said. "The second thing I thought was, 'Oh my God, my poor mother.'"

But it wasn't the top anchors that gave way, and he didn't have to apologize to his mother in some saintly afterlife encounter.

The snap Offenbacher felt was the rip of the protective sheath on his rope giving way.

The nylon outer layer of the rope had severed, sending the South Shore resident perilously zooming toward the ground.

Thirty feet down the line, the sheath bunched in a wad and caught and Offenbacher was stopped. Dangling in the air, he noticed that the core of the rope remained intact, twanging like a bowstring from the fall.

His climbing partner Nils Davis, who was hanging from another set of anchors more than 100 feet below, heard Offenbacher scream.

"We almost died, and that's really not too far off the truth," Davis said as he casually recounted the saga recently while sipping from a coffee mug at South Shore's Alpen Sierra coffee house.

"I yelled up to him and started making up some figures - 'Remember, the sheath is only 5 percent of the rope's integrity anyway.'"

"I kept going up the rope anyway," Offenbacher said, chuckling. "That's something that you never want to tell your parents."

The mishap didn't stop the pair from tackling a first ascent on the Howser Towers in Canada's remote Bugaboo Mountains.

While Offenbacher and Davis scaled an uncharted wall in the Bugaboos last summer, Sean Isaac of Canmore, Canada, was returning home from a trip to Peru's high country.

Isaac headed for the Bugaboos, eyes set on climbing one of the last untouched walls on the Howser Towers. He was disappointed when he realized the two South Tahoe climbers had beaten him to the challenge.

They met at the base of the crag.

"We told him about the route we had just climbed and he gave us the beta on Peru - and we swapped places," Davis said.

Davis and Offenbacher set out in May to put up the eighth route on Peru's Sphinx dome, a lofty backcountry precipice.

After 19 pitches and five days on the 2,500-foot wall, they stood on top of the mountain's 17,800-foot summit. It was the highest point either had ever been.

"There was some major suffering out there," Davis said. "You'd get exhausted just pulling yourself up the rope."

Fast and light are their tactics. They take turns leading the rope up a rock face and following behind with the 180-pound gear bag. At night they pitch a Portaledge, a nylon cot that hooks to a wall.

They named their route the Riddle of the Cordillera Blanca - after the confusion incomplete maps have caused previous expeditions.

They said it was Isaac's details that guided them to the right monolith.

"Now the three of us are going to Pakistan," Davis said.

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The trio left Thursday for Pakistan's Karakoram Rock in the Himalayas. They will be the second group of rock climbers, and the first American and Canadian alpinists, to visit the valley.

The wall they want to climb will bring them even deeper into the mountains and to a valley that no Westerner reportedly has ever visited.

Venturing into the blank spots on the world map has earned them professional adventurer status.

-- -- --

Offenbacher works as a talk show host for the Resort Sports Network in South Lake Tahoe and Davis holds a variety of titles, including casino card dealer, sports shop technician and freelance writer and photographer. But day jobs have been put on hold. Sponsors such as L.L. Bean and Boreal climbing shoes are knocking at their door.

But the fame is a secondary motivation, they said.

So what drives them to live in the vertical world?

"Adventure," Davis said.

"I always wished that I lived 150 years ago, when Lewis and Clark were exploring, but climbing is almost exactly the same," Offenbacher added. "Especially on this trip, we're going where civilization hasn't changed in 600 years."

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