Magazine article Sunset


Magazine article Sunset


Article excerpt

A noodle-armed novice learns to love rock climbing

I don't look like rock-climbing material. I'm only moderately athletic, I don't love heights, and I can do exactly one push-up. But now that I've learned the basics of the sport, I know that my noodle arms are not reasons to stay away from rock faces. As Mykael Lazzeri, an instructor at Mission Cliffs climbing gym in San Francisco, says: "If you can climb a ladder, you can climb a rock."

This is good news for anyone looking for an outdoor activity that is both physically challenging and mentally engaging. Steve Gerberding, an instructor at Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School and a 26-year climbing veteran, says, "Rock climbing is puzzle solving."

Climbing as an indoor sport

An indoor climbing gym is the best place for a novice to start. Gyms supply gear and instruction-and they have padded floors. Despite the fact that there is almost no chance of falling all the way down (known as "decking"), that padding is reassuring the first time you Spider-Man your way up a vertical surface.

The first rule of climbing is safety. So we start by learning how to put on a harness correctly and tie the rope that will be our lifeline. Minutes into my class at Mission Cliffs, I have mastered the figure-eight follow-through knot, the cornerstone of rock climbing. The next 20 minutes are devoted to belaying, in which the climber's partner uses a belay device to control the rope's slack, ensuring that the climber doesn't get injured if she loses her grip. And soon I find myself hanging 20 feet above the floor, having just climbed a wall for the very first time.

Now that I've learned how to tie in, belay, and climb, Lazzei sets me loose to find a buddy so we can take turns as belayer and climber.

My first partner is a young woman who has been climbing indoors for about a month. She urges me to use my leg muscles to push off the small resin holds and to trust my feet. This takes all my strength; I am working against a standard fear of heights. When I mention it to Lazzeri, he says, "Trust your fear. It's there to help you."

My second indoor class is Joel Cortez's "Basic Technique." Cortez starts by announcing that climbing is all in the legs. He teaches us to smear (use the pressure of the ball of the foot against a flat wall to step up) and match (bring both hands or feet together on the same hold), and most importantly, to position our bodies to take advantage of momentum, balance, and weight distribution. The difference is incredible. By the end of the two-hour class, I have climbed an easy intermediate route; it wouldn't impress the guys on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, but it pleases me quite a bit.

Scaling rocks in Joshua Tree

After just two sessions inside, I want to get outside. That is why at 8 A.M. on a Saturday I find myself standing in a parking lot in Southern California's Joshua Tree National Park, which is famous for the quartz monzonite rock that draws climbers from all over the world. Here I meet 10 other students, as well as instructors Steve Gerberding and Don Reid from the Joshua Tree Rock Climbing School.

The class is an even mixture of men and women; everyone but me is in his or her 20s. Their youth discourages me until Gerberding tells us that one of his favorite climbing students, a mail who takes private lessons, is 82.

We spend the morning bouldering (moving along a rock a few feet off the ground with no ropes or harnesses). …

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