Active Outdoors: Rock climbing is a fun challenge at all levels

  • Rockin Out 3: The smiles come natural when you try something new for the first time, especially when it's as challenging and as much fun as rock climbing. (EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • Rockin Out 1: Rock climbing is a perfect way to use every muscle in your body on a warm summer day. (EasternSlopes.com photo)

  • You don’t need to be young – or foolish – to try rock climbing this summer. Just be ready for a challenge and a lot of fun. EasternSlopes.com / Courtesy

For the Monitor
Sunday, May 28, 2017

Do you ever get the feeling that it’s time to try something new? Mix it up? Use your muscles in a different way? Challenge yourself to learn a new skill? Overcome a fear that’s been holding you back?

May I suggest you try rock climbing this summer? There’s simply no better way to break out of a rut than to climb something vertical. And granite warmed by summer sunshine is a wonderful thing to climb.

There are several misconceptions about rock climbing that should be dispelled before we go any farther. The first misconception is it’s something for only the young, fit and foolish.

Let’s start with the young part. I know some happy “rock jocks” who are well into their 70s, some in their 80s. They may not climb like they did when they were mere sprigs of 60, but they’ll still kick my butt – and probably yours, too. Let’s get this straight right from the start: You aren’t “too old” to try rock climbing.

The whole “fitness” thing is a red herring. Like most physical sports, you start rock climbing at whatever level you are at and progress from there. Most of the work of climbing is done with your legs, not your arms, so if you can stand up from a chair, you are strong enough to start climbing. It’s true that the very best climbers are among the leanest, fittest, strongest people you’ll ever see, right up there with gymnasts and ballet dancers, but they are that way because they climb, not vice versa.

Now for the “foolish” part. If you’ve never tried it, rock climbing looks really dangerous. That’s part of what makes it so “cool.” That’s because the only images of rock climbing that make it into car commercials and on to social media are of extreme rock jocks deliberately pushing the limits of the sport.

But that perception is about as wrong as it can be. Yes, rock climbing can be insanely dangerous – if you choose to make it so. But it can also be very safe if you start slowly, learn from qualified instructors, and follow all safety rules. I’ve been climbing occasionally for nearly 40 years, always with more experienced partners, and the longest “fall” I’ve ever taken was about 6 inches before the rope caught me.

In truth, what happens on a rock is an amazing shift in focus and the perfect antidote to our over-stimulated and stressed-out world. In fact, when you are climbing, the rest of the world disappears as you concentrate entirely upon the rock you are clinging to, and the next move you need to make in order to progress upward. It really becomes a metaphor for the way life should be lived in the here and now, using all your strength and focus on getting where you want to go. Life isn’t a spectator sport. Get out and enjoy!

Climbing walls inside and out

If there are real limitations to rock climbing, the first is that there aren’t good cliffs everywhere. The second is that you can’t just show up and start climbing a cliff. The third is that rock climbing it requires nice weather. Wet rock is slippery.

Fortunately, there’s been an explosion of artificial climbing walls at gyms, ski areas, even some retail stores and malls, which will you get a taste of climbing in a very controlled and safe environment. Wherever you live, chances are there’s a climbing wall quite near you. In most places you can just show up, pay a fee, get a little instruction and start climbing. Do a search for “climbing walls near me.” You’ll find one.

While an artificial rock wall is better than nothing, the problem is, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that it is too “sanitized.” Without the sound of wind and bird calls as background music, without the feel of sun-warmed, weather-roughened rock, it’s just not even close to the same experience. But it’s a place to start.

Rock climbing instruction

As far as I’m concerned, the only way to get started safely in “real” rock climbing is with a professional instructor. It’s like skiing or whitewater kayaking – you can’t safely learn it on your own and someone may be good at it themselves, but that doesn’t mean they can teach you the skills you need to do it safely.

The American Mountain Guides Association has a list of certified instructors that’s a great place to start your search.

Fortunately, here in the northeast we have a number of highly qualified guide services that can teach you what you need to know. These are ones I’ve personally climbed with and can recommend.

Based in North Conway, the IME’s International Mountain Climbing School is one of the oldest and most respected climbing schools in the world.

The EMS Climbing School gives lessons in Connecticut, southern New York and in Massachusetts (near Boston) in addition to their original location in North Conway, New Hampshire.

If you are up near Bar Harbor and Mont Desert Island this summer, Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School gives lessons on the high rock faces and sea cliffs of Acadia National Park. Amazing setting and experience.

In the Adirondacks, Adirondack Mountain Guides gives lessons on the lovely rock faces near Keene Valley, N.Y., not far from Lake Placid.

(Tim Jones is the executive editor of the online magazine EasternSlopes.com and writes about outdoor sports and travel. Email him at timjones@easternslopes.com.)