(Above) Mike Bolte on Fairview Dome.

by Paul Doherty

While hanging from Fairview Dome, a rockclimbing physicist contemplates the mechanics of his hands.


I was shivering in the pre-dawn cold at the base of a thousand-foot granite wall in Yosemite National Park. My palms were wet with nervous sweat. In a few minutes I was going to start climbing the wall, and I didn't know whether I would make it to the top or not. The route I had chosen is known as the Regular Route on Fairview Dome. It's a hard route, but nowhere near the hardest by modern rock-climbing standards. By my own standards, however, it was bigger and harder than anything I had ever attempted. Whether I made it to the top would depend on the coordinated work of my brain, my feet, and my hands.
 While my eyes studied the steep crack that marked the line of my route, my hands tightened my boot laces and my harness straps, and then tied the knot that attached a nylon rope to my harness. The harness was made of two- inch-wide nylon straps, like the safety belts in a car, and had the same purpose: to stop me when I was moving at a high speed without injuring me in the process. As I followed the familiar ritual of dressing like a climber, my fear decreased, my hands stopped sweating, and I began to savor the thought of a fine climb.   Fairview Dome

Beside me, Mike tore adhesive tape from a roll and wrapped it around his hands. He looked up at me from his seat on the ground and smiled. I smiled back. We were both thinking the same thoughts, a combination of "We do this for fun, right?" and "Whose idea was this anyway?"

On the upcoming climb, our hands, more than any other body part, would be tested to their limits. My life would be in Mike's hands as much as my own. If I fell, he would have to hold the rope and stop my fall. The job of my hands would be to make sure I didn't fall.

Open the hood of a car, and look at the complex mess which fills the frame: pulleys, hoses, cables, wires, and engine block. My hand has equivalents to all of these pieces packed into a much tighter space: the bones provide an internal frame; arteries and veins are the plumbing, bringing in the fuel and oxygen and removing waste; nerves-like the wires of the car-carry both control and send- sensory signals; muscles provide the power; and tendons are the cables connecting the muscles to the bones. All of these pieces are laced together with ligaments and wrapped in skin.

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