At the 2023 National Speleological Society (NSS) convention, I will be showing nearly 3,000 superb, standard, silly, and stupid examples of ascenders, descenders, belayers, and miscellaneous devices for caving, climbing, canyoneering, industrial, military, police, and rescue use and abuse. How and why did I begin collecting?
I started single rope technique in my pre-teen years, and lacking contact with cavers or climbers to show me the techniques, I had to teach myself. Wanting the best rappeling equipment available but finding conflicting opinions and erroneous information widely circulating in the literature, quickly I recognized that the only way to determine which was best was to acquire and test all options. My financial situation at such a young age was meager, and by the time I acquired all three available rappeling devices, there were six. This forced delaying my decision, but by the time I had the other three, there were more. I faced a similar problem acquiring and testing ascenders. The race was on, and I was losing.
I joined the NSS in early 1971 and the Pittsburgh Grotto after receiving my driver’s license the following year. Starting my first job provided gear-purchasing income. I found some carabiners on a school trip to Madrid, and my father had some devices made for me in the shop that he supervised. I was focused on device performance, and neglected to keep records of my early acquisitions.
After graduating from University, I took a full-time job and started attending caving functions on a regular basis, providing easy access to the major U.S. caving vendors. Bob & Bob Bob generally did not provide receipts, and so I do not know how many items I bought from him. Ian Ellis of Speleoshoppe became a major supplier to the collection by always looking for new devices that he thought would interest me. When my friend John Weinel formed his equipment business, he did the same, often sending me new devices with a note asking me to return either the device or a cheque. I invariably chose the latter.
The collection passed the 100 item mark around 1980, mistakenly thought then to be a large number. Growth since then has been exponential at nearly 9 percent annually. Al Fincham brought me a selection from England in 1981. The following year I was working in Italy for a few weeks, and was able to acquire items from Repetto Sport in Italy, and Eiselin Sport in Switzerland. I had the pleasure of spending a day with Walter Marti (the Jumar inventor) and his secretary/translator Mrs. Bauman. The 1983 NSS Convention was in West Virginia, and I took advantage of its proximity to home to bring six display boards to show at the Vertical Section meeting. Alas, I neglected photographing those boards.
Alex Sproul formed Inner Mountain Outfitters and started supplying my collection in 1987, helping the collection pass the 200 item mark. Perhaps his greatest contribution was to make Petzl products readily available to US cavers. Alex actively sought items for the collection, and became one of its largest sources.
By 1991 the collection had passed 300 items. I displayed it at the NSS Convention in New York that year. Four years later, I displayed 430 items at the Virginia convention. I had resumed rock climbing the year before, and had added dozens of belay devices to the collection. Bruce Smith formed On Rope 1 and became a major supporter in 1996, and his successor Wm Shrewsbury continues to support the collection to this day.
In 1999 I created a web site to share my collection with the world. It changed hosts a few times, but now has a permanent URL at http://www.verticalmuseum.com/. The reaction worldwide has been incredible, with nearly 400,000 visits to date. Gear junkies throughout the world contacted me, and many of them have donated to the collection. When the site was briefly offline in 2007 due to a hosting change, the arborist community went apoplectic, much to my surprise, as I never knew them as followers. They remain the collection’s greatest fan base.
By 2002 eBay had become an effective source for new items, and eventually about a third of the collection would come from there. In the early days, people would stop bidding once they saw that I was bidding on an item, just to support the collection. Sadly, eBay enacted privacy policies that put a stop to this assistance.
I displayed the collection at the 2000 West Virginia convention, showing 587 pieces. It took 12 hours to assemble the display on site. I decided never to try that again. Seven years later, I took 1,039 devices on 30 boards to the Indiana convention, again taking advantage of its proximity to my home. Two years later, I reorganized the boards to include 1,299 items, and took three dozen boards to the Union Internationale de Spéléologie Congress in Texas. For the few who visited the collection, it certainly went over well, but I resolved never to repeat the attempt, as preparing for Kerrville absorbed all my free time for eight full months.
The collection continued its exponential growth after the International. It received an additional large step increase when Bob Thrun passed in 2017, leaving his gear collection to me. This completed the circle, as Bob’s book Prusiking was an early inspiration.
During the past decade I have developed numerous contacts throughout the world. Ondřej Belica of Climbing CZ sro and Gertjan van Pelt of CanyonZone became major contributors. As a result of these and others, my focus has expanded as I developed a greater appreciation of the need to document the history of our devices. Stéphane Pennequin of the Nut Museum and Denis Pivot of C.A.M.P. R&D each provided tremendous support to my historical research – indeed, Stéphane inspired most of it – as well as contributed numerous rare and unusual items. More recently, Artyom Babin from Moscow has helped me acquire over a hundred Russian, Ukrainian, and Soviet-era U.S.S.R. devices as well as several Russian books describing their gear. In 2021, I created a Vertical Museum group on Facebook to provide a forum for all those interested in rappelling, ascending, and belaying devices used for caving, climbing, and related recreational and non-recreational activities.
The NSS and I signed an agreement in 2021 that would eventually transfer the collection to the NSS Museum and to provide means to maintain, display, and enlarge it after I am gone. The collection will remain in my possession and under my care for the foreseeable future.
Rachel Saker messaged me in late 2020 saying, “Hi Gary, I am a huge fan of your incredible collection. Were you ever planning to bring it back out to a Convention? There's a ton of us younger generation who are complete gear nerds.” I didn’t know Rachel and she’d never seen my collection, but she twisted my arm until I agreed. I started assembling the displays in September 2021. Trying to prepare the display of a collection that grows by nearly a device a day is not easy, and the effort has consumed all my free time since then. Thank you, Rachel.
Manufacturers continue thwarting my original plan by changing their designs, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. How can I decide what to use with incomplete information? I continue acquiring and testing devices in my quest to answer, "Which one is best?" I will let you know after I acquire and test all the ones that I still do not have. Device donations supporting this goal are welcome and will be greatly appreciated.