A few weeks off of work and some time in the desert…that was how I spent the holidays last year. With a bit of free time on my hands, I thought I finally had the opportunity to make good on what I had been thinking about up until that point: learn to rock climb. The desire is easy, doing it is much more difficult. Did I want to learn in a class at an indoor gym, or do something outside? Would I need to organize a private class? Are there schools available? Are they reputable and/or safe?
Of course the answers to all of this meant spending significant time doing research: finding schools and classes, checking ratings and reputation, looking at prices and availability, etc. In the end I ended up with two different schools that ran one-day outdoor classes. I emailed both, asking about custom courses. Both emailed me back, but I had a much better feeling about one compared to the other. Ultimately I chose the Arizona Climbing and Adventure School. They were responsive over email and very accommodating as far as setting up a private lesson. I was told where to be and at what time and with what gear, and I was set. Just a few weeks out, I was excited.
At 8am the next morning I met the owner, Mark, and my instructor, Megan, in the parking lot of a Circle K in Pinnacle Peak. A quick gear check out, and from there we made our way out to a “parking spot” in the desert. Megan then lead me about a quarter-mile to our instruction site.
Megan was awesome (and I recommend her to anyone looking for instruction)- I knew nothing, in fact, less than nothing about rock climbing, my gear, technique, etc. We started with a basic run through of the gear itself and the different components (harness, helmet, rope, shoes, carabiner, grigri, etc). I popped on the shoes they gave me (a very beat up pair of La Sportiva’s) and Megan started by showing me the basics on a large boulder. I wasn’t to climb it so much as I was to use my shoes to grip it: as she termed it, “learning to trust the shoes.” That was pretty hard, to trust that smearing my shoes against this small chip in the rock would provide me any leverage at all…well of course, it did.
We spent maybe an hour there before moving over to the real place of instruction, a rock face about 40-60 feet up (this is a rough, really rough, estimate based on my memory…it could have been 30 feet!). Megan hiked around the other side and up to the top to make sure the anchor was in place for the rope. Before I knew what was happening, I was roped in, barking out the commands (“On Belay?”) and looking up this rock face, prepping to climb it.
This was one of the reasons why I really like this experience. I didn’t spend hours in a classroom learning about gear and safety, or being briefed on the rules. One hour was spent making sure I was comfortable with everything, and then I was put on the rock, and told to climb. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. But, I put my foot on the rock and pushed off.
It was about half way up before I hit the crux of that particular route (I wish I knew its name)- a spot where I had to move about three feet to my right, duck under an overhang, and then loop myself out onto the upper portion of the face (which had very little in way of places to put my feet). The first time, I froze at the overhang, thinking to myself how in the world was I going to get around and up this thing. Belaying me on the ground, Megan jumped in and told me exactly what to do. I was nervous, but I told myself that the rope is there in case I fall, so I have some room for a mistake here. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, opened my eyes, and made the move.
I didn’t fall, or slip up, in fact I was now on the upper portion of the route! The remainder of the route was challenging (only because there were few good places for my hands or feet), but it was a straight shot to the top. Once there, I was able to peak my head above the rock and get the sunlight on my face. I rapelled down and unhooked, feeling exhilarated. Megan was congratulatory, saying that I did great and better than many of her first-timers.
We re-did that same route a bunch more times. I got more and more comfortable with it so that by later in the day, I was able to go up and down it without instruction or fear.
As the end of the day neared, Megan showed me a variation of the route, where the starting point (about 2 feet off the ground) was much harder. This particular starting point made this route a 5.7 or even a 5.8 (depending on who you ask). The rating didn’t matter too much to me because as far as I was concerned, it was just harder. A lot harder. In fact, I couldn’t do it without some assistance from Megan pushing my heel (and thus my foot) into the wall, allowing me to get the leverage I needed to get up that new opening move.
Quickly, the day was ever. I was bleeding in at least three places on my hands, and my shoulder hurt a bit (at one point I fell, and I barn-door’d right into the wall with my shoulder). But it was amazing. Megan made sure I was safe, I had a blast, and I knew that this was something I wanted to do more. Lot’s more.
I’m still using the harness that I bought for that one-day class. It’s a Petzl Adjama, and it’s been great for me thus far. The adjustable leg loops are comfortable, and the double-back buckles on the straps are just an added safety benefit. I’ve been using it for indoor climbing and it’s been reliable and comfortable.