Learning the Ropes
I had never heard of rock climbing until I went away to college in Duluth, Minnesota. During our freshman orientation, we filled out a sheet to circle which clubs or organizations we would be interested in. I circled dance, rock climbing, and the outdoor camping club on my sheet. I hadn’t done any of those things, but this was the time to try new things, in a city where I hadn’t yet made any friends and had only visited a few times. I was eager to be able to get outside to hike and have adventures, after growing up in a very flat place.
I wasn’t even sure I really liked rock climbing the first time I tried it in the indoor rock gym on campus. I wasn’t good at it, and it seemed really intimidating, especially with a group that was mostly males who were strong climbers. But, I stuck with it. I went out on the rock for the first time at a place called Blue Mounds, and I loved the idea of challenging yourself outside, encouraging others on routes, and being in really unique places. Within those four years, I climbed in southern Minnesota and at Shovel Point, where we would climb after being lowered over a cliff over Lake Superior on the North Shore. If we asked for advice on the climb, those above couldn’t actually see the route and would just say something like, “reach to your left, there’s a great hold” and usually…if you looked, there was. There was nothing else to do but to find a way up. In my junior year of college, I tried my first lead climb in Red Rocks, Nevada while on a spring break climbing trip (a 5.8, where I fell right before the 2nd bolt but luckily did not reach the ground and afterwards finished the climb). I met my best friend, Nicole, through rock climbing, as we would meet for “Women on the Wall” and play around on 5.9s or 5.10s. She is still my closest friend 20 years later, even if we don’t climb together any longer.
After college, I pretty much stopped climbing for about 15 years. I would occasionally climb indoors and went outside a few times when I lived in Portland, Oregon, but I didn’t have much money, and getting new gear or joining the rock gym wasn’t in my budget. I also wasn’t good friends with anyone who climbed and lacked the knowledge to go out and set up anything on my own or do leading. There weren’t any online groups to join at that time and I wasn’t sure how to go about finding a partner.
I finally was able to move back to Oregon three years ago, after four years in southern Ohio, and found an outdoor group that was hosting a trip out to Smith Rock the following summer. I eagerly sent the leader an e-mail message and was so excited when she said I was welcome to join. During the two days, I climbed 5.7’s and 5.8’s and also did my first multi-pitch route on Cinnamon Slab, a 5.6 with a long rappel down. I loved being back at Smith and had an incredible time, and couldn’t wait to do more. The following year, I joined a local outdoor club and was able to take a weekend class on lead climbing at Smith and go out on various trips to Flagstone, Salmon Slab, the Columns in Eugene and other day trips to Smith. Each trip was unique and challenged my ability to climb in different ways. This spring, I took a course on anchor building through the same group and tried to stay in climbing shape over the winter while climbing at our indoor climbing gym on the campus where I work with friends from the outdoor group.
I slowly accumulated gear, buying my own 70 meter rope, quick draws, slings, and a cordelette. It seems there is always more to buy and more places I want to climb and experience. And always so much to learn.
This year I was able to go back to new places at Smith, including climbs up Burma Road to Koala Rock where I did another multi-pitch route, this time at Round River, where I cleaned the gear from the person who led. I also did my first alpine multi-pitch at North Ingalls Peak in Washington State.
Last weekend, I took a friend out climbing at the Columns in Eugene, for her first time climbing outside. She has climbed inside for over a year, but had never been on real rock or had purchased any gear. I set up top ropes and we did 4 or 5 routes and she smiled and thanked me after every route. It felt really amazing to finally be the one to teach something, when I constantly feel like the unsure newbie trying to figure it out. I hope to get to the level where I can pay back the knowledge and training I was given to someone else who is unsure about trying climbing.
I am by no means a really strong climber. If I could get back to the 5.10 level, I would declare victory. As I near my 40’s, I’m less worried about the grades or comparisons with the photos in magazines or online. The thing I struggle with most is just to be confident with my climbing and lead without being so afraid of falling.
The group I climb with, is a mixed group of beginner to moderate level climbers who are really encouraging and supportive. Part of why I love climbing is that it is a solitary experience when you are on the rock. You problem solve and try new things with your body, your hands, your feet, and your mind. And when you conquer a route you didn’t think you could, you feel so gratified. Through climbing, you get to go to some amazing places and see incredible views that you really earn. But what I also love, is the people who I have climbed with. People who respect the earth, have a good sense of humor and want to help others experience the challenge and rewards of rock climbing outside.
If you haven’t tried climbing yet, I encourage you to do it. There are now so many indoor rock climbing gyms and that can give you the initial skills of climbing and belaying. I would then look at finding a way to get outdoors with either an experienced mentor, an outdoor club or group, or by paying for a guided trip. Climbing has shown me that I am stronger than I thought I was, and that even though I still have so much to learn, there is nowhere else to go but up.